What is a Naughty Child?

I am prompted to write about that word again. That word is naughty.The response that makes most sense is that there is no such creature as a naughty child. What does the word mean? It usually means that the child is exhibiting behaviour that adults find frustrating, irritating, confusing, annoying or even bizarre.

Labelling and Power

Adults often feel they must be more powerful than children, so we do this by using language that no one, not even ourselves, understands. By use of this magic word naughty we can bewilder a child and leave them guessing about what it was that they did which caused us to behave in such a violent, hurtful or frightening manner.

Some adults demonstrate their displeasure by becoming more angry and child-like than the child they are supposed to be disciplining. “You make me very angry when you are naughty” is a statement which can bring chills to the heart of a young child. What information have they been given? How can they learn to improve? All they have been told is that now the adult is angry, and they wonder what will happen next.

It is these types of statements that abusers have been using for centuries to let their victims know that it really is all their own fault if something bad happens to them. They may refuse to speak to the child, or banish them to the naughty chair or spot to “think about things”. What things? If an inanimate object can also become naughty, what hope is there for an innocent, albeit irritating, child? All this does is inform the child that whatever they did, it wasn’t pleasing to the adult. How is that teaching the child anything positive about behaviour?

By the same token, those adults who accuse children of attention-seeking behaviour need to stop and think. All of us, child or adult, seek attention from time to time. If we speak, we want someone to listen; if we have done something well, we want someone to take note and offer recognition; if we cannot gain attention by any other means, we will behave in an inappropriate manner, knowing that at least a telling off or punishment is acknowledgement that we exist.

Boundaries and Bertie

A child needs boundaries and discipline that is consistent and age-appropriate. If something in a child’s behaviour is undesirable, it is essential that they are informed in a way they understand what it is that makes their actions unsafe or anti-social.

“You took the toy from Bertie”. “Bertie is crying”. “He is sad because the toy has been taken away”. These behavioural statements will have more impact on the child than the adult removing the child or grabbing the toy and giving it back to the hapless Bertie.

If the child is old enough, the question, “What do you think we can do for Bertie to stop him crying?” will help train them to find a solution which can cheer up poor Bertie. We want them to say that Bertie should be given the toy. The child may have a different, but equally fitting idea, such as “He needs a hug”. Or “Give him another toy”.

At this stage, what the child learns is that each action or behaviour has a consequence. If they wish for a positive consequence, they must do positive things. So, if a hug quietens Bertie, then we can thank the child for his or her suggestions.

The Older Child – and Gertie Too

I know that some people would want me to say that the child should have been told that they were unkind, but I am thinking with the logic of the child. To develop a conscience, you need to be emotionally mature enough. A young child may not yet be ready to think about others. We must offer opportunities for practising emotional understanding.

If a similar thing were to happen with an older child, we might then add, “Maybe if Bertie was given the toy back it might make him very happy. I would like to see that. I think you should try it so we can see if I am right”. Note that I have not suggested you ask the child what they think. They would be likely to say that they didn’t want to, and therefore the option for refusal is not offered.

We are allowing the child thinking time without forcing surrender. Child care should be more about guidance and leadership rather than bullying and punishment.

If the behaviour of the child is severe, then the adult should use behavioural statements and questions in a different way. “You pushed Gertie down onto the pavement”. “She is crying because she was hurt when she fell”. “I think you hurt Gertie by pushing her down”. “What can you do to make Gertie feel better?” “I don’t want you to push anyone over. It hurts them when they fall”.

This time we have added an adult opinion which the child can think about. If this incident were to happen again with the same child, we can remind them what we said and add a question, “When you pushed Gertie over she cried because it hurt her. You have now pushed Bertie and he is crying because he is hurt”. “What do you think should happen now?” If the child does not wish to make a decision, then we can take some of that responsibility away from them.

“I think that you should say sorry because you have hurt your friend. I said that I didn’t want you to push anyone because it hurts them. You have now pushed Bertie. Now you must sit beside me until I say you can go back to play because I need to see where you are and what you are doing”. If we have to resort to this, the child should only be expected to sit beside the adult for a few minutes, no longer than three or four, as their attention span is still very short and they will soon have forgotten why they are there.

It is important that the adult watches the child from that moment until they ‘catch them being good’ and then lets everyone else know how kind, clever, thoughtful or whatever, the child was. Verbal public praise works wonders!

If we remember that children do not automatically have the reasoning powers and insight of adults, it will help us remain focussed on what we are providing for the child: a positive, consistent role model, who does not blame or show anger. I have never met a parent yet who deliberately set out to mould a child into bad behaviour. If we want our children to become good citizens, we must provide them with the tools to meet the challenge.

Word History

I want to take a few moments to review the history of this word naughty.

Below are definitions linked to historical meanings:

The word naughty at one time was an all-purpose word similar to bad. During the 16th century one could use naughty to mean “unhealthy, unpleasant, bad (with respect to weather), vicious (of an animal), inferior, or bad in quality” (one could say “very naughtie figes” or “naughty corrupt water”). All of these senses have disappeared, however, and naughty is now used mainly in contexts involving mischief or indecency.

This recalls its early days in Middle English (with the form noughti), when the word was restricted to the senses “evil, hostile, ineffectual, and needy.” Middle English noughti, first recorded in the last quarter of the 14th century, was derived from nought, which primarily meant “nothing” but was also used as a noun meaning “evil” and as an adjective meaning such things as “immoral, weak, useless.” Thus naughty, in a sense, has risen from nothing, but its fortunes used to be better than they are at present.

1. Having little or nothing.

2. Worthless; bad; good for nothing.

3. Mischievous; perverse; forward; guilty of disobedient or improper conduct; as, a naughty child.

4. Hence, corrupt; wicked.

It is evident that the key to this word is that the person or thing it is used against is worthless, evil, corrupt. Do we really need to retain this ridiculous word when we have a wealth of many more adjective and clusters of words in our different languages to describe to a child how their behaviour has displeased or frightened us?

We currently have a trend of sending children to ‘naughty corners’ or ‘naughty steps’ or ‘naughty chairs’. If inanimate objects can also be naughty, there is clearly no hope for the child. Please let me sound off as the voice of rationality and reason – use appropriate terminology when speaking to a child. Do not use the umbrella term that actually means nothing – is insignificant in its nothingness; but which can create an inordinate amount of fear and trepidation in a small person who understands threat and menace in the adult’s voice. Let’s stop this and focus on something a bit more meaningful.

2 thoughts on “What is a Naughty Child?”

  1. I agree that it is not a good idea to call the actual child naughty – children take things literally and may build this into their ideas about themselves which would be not helpfull or true And I heartily agree that we must explain to children and enter into a dialogue with them about why people don’t like certain behaviour and how they might feel and what might be a better way of doing things .
    I certainly agree that adults should not shout at children or but on a big emotional display of anger in order to try to frighten the child into doing what adults want ( this is abusive and a terrible example)
    But I can’t see the objection to using the word “naughty” to describe the behaviour that we very much want the child to avoid. I hear people using the phrase ” unaceptable behaviour” to three year olds and I think it’s better to say “naughty behaviour ” because it’s clearer then that you mean ” People are really not going to like this type of thing BUT I recognise the fact that you are a child and just learning about all this ” Sooner or later we need a word for ” all the stuff you really really must not do ” and “naughty” is as good a word as any I think because it’s simple and children know what you mean by it.

  2. Thanks for your time in writing this article, I have a friend who has touched the subject on using the word naughty but was not able to explain in depth why other than the label the child adopts for themselves.

    Most of my parenting skills are from real life experiences and my understanding of a child’s psychology, I don’t pretend to be a brain expert but I do have a good understanding of human behavior and language.

    I wouldn’t ever follow parenting advice from anyone based only on their opinion only, to me it has to be scientific to a degree as everyone’s children are different and will respond to techniques and social interactions in different ways, what may work for one parent may have a negative impact for another. Also two three year old boys can be a world apart in terms of language and understanding when things are being explained so you cant base how to parent a child just based on age. One point to make is that nobody knows you child or how to connect with them better than you do.

    I do currently use the word naughty to explain behavior but not when my son is upset and over reacting to something such as being told bath time is over, this is one of his favorite things to do and he doesn’t always understand that these things cannot last forever. This is completely acceptable behavior and should definitely not be labeled as something bad.

    In an instance where i label behavior as naughty I will also explain why its naughty and an alternative to whatever he is trying to achieve and then tell him that this would be a good thing to do. I also like to over exaggerate when he is being good and when he does listen. I say to mummy: ‘look isn’t … being very good putting all of his toys away before going to bed’.

    Coming back to the point I wanted to make is that you deserve credit for this article as you have managed to explain to me in a very logical way (rather than an overly uninformed and opinionated way like the 3000 forums i have visited) and in detail on how I can improve my communication skills with my son. I will be avoiding the term naughty and explain why something is undesirable behavior and instead focus on moving forward and doing good things. As you have said we have many more descriptive words we can be using depending on the situation.


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