Child: There once was a little boy named Joe. He was three years old—nearly four, actually—so he thought he wasn’t a little boy anymore. In fact, he thought he was a big boy. Joe had an older sister, Hannah, who was very old. She was seven.

One day, it was Hannah’s birthday party, and lots of other girls who were six and seven years old came to her house for the party.

Adult: What happened?

All Joe can remember is that his Mummy became very, very cross with him.

Why was she so very cross?

Joe had bitten and scratched Hannah’s friend Rebecca, because his feelings made him do it.

Why couldn’t he remember what happened?

When his Mummy was cross, he forgot all about what he’d done.

Tell me more?

Joe wanted to play with the girls who’d come to the party and have fun, but he wasn’t allowed, and then he felt all alone.

Poor Joe, perhaps he thought they’d all come to play with him?

Maybe, but he bit Rebecca on the arm, and he doesn’t know why he did that.

That wasn’t nice for Rebecca. What did Joe’s Mummy do about it?

Joe’s Mummy picked him up and carried him upstairs. Her face was very red. “You’re going to get three hard smacks on your bottom!” she said. Joe was very frightened.

Did Joe’s Mummy do that?

Yes, she put Joe on her bed and she smacked him hard on his bottom, three times.

What did Joe do?

He screamed.

What did his Mummy do then?

She left him all alone and shut the door. “You stay there, and don’t you dare come out!” she shouted.

What did Joe do when he was all alone?

Joe cried and screamed, and screamed and cried for a very long time. It was terrible.

So his Mummy smacked him hard and left him all alone.

Yes, and Joe wanted his Mum—the other one, the cuddly one, the one who lets him sit on her lap while she reads him a story.

I think Joe was very upset and frightened.

Yes, and he wondered what was going to happen next.

What do you think he was thinking about?

What’s Mummy going to do next? Will I have to stay here forever? Will someone come in? Will Mummy come in and be angry and give me more smacks?

Gosh, it sounds like Joe had lots of worried thoughts and worried feelings.

Well, his Mummy was very, very cross. Her face was red and she moved very quickly. She shut the door hard. Sometimes when some Mummies are very, very angry, they smack bottoms and shut their children in their rooms for a very, very long time. I know they do that because I was there and I saw it with my own eyes.

So Joe was all alone and scared.Angry mother and boy each sit alone, wishing they were together in a hug - There's no such thing as naughtyAnd he wanted his Mummy and a cuddle.

How do you think Joe was feeling when he bit Rebecca?

Angry because he wasn’t allowed to play with the girls, because it would’ve ruined their fun.

Was he naughty?

I think he was angry and then he was very naughty.

How was Joe’s Mummy feeling when she spanked him?

His Mummy was very, very angry.

Was his Mummy naughty?

No, silly! Grown-ups aren’t naughty when they punish their children for being naughty.

So what was his Mummy, if she wasn’t naughty?

Joe’s Mummy was angry with him but not naughty.

OK, and do you think Joe was feeling angry when he bit Rebecca?

I already told you, yes.

Was Joe’s Mummy feeling angry when she spanked Joe?

Yes, I already said that. She was very angry.

But Joe’s Mummy wasn’t naughty, is that right?

I already told you that. Grown-ups aren’t naughty.

That’s interesting, isn’t it? So what was Joe again?

Joe was naughty, I think.

So Joe’s Mummy wasn’t naughty when she was feeling angry and spanked Joe?

That’s right, grown-ups aren’t naughty when they punish children.

But was Joe naughty when he was feeling angry and bit Rebecca?

I don’t know now. You’ve confused me.

It’s puzzling, isn’t it?

They were both naughty, weren’t they?

Or were they both not naughty?

Well, Joe knows that he shouldn’t hurt people. It’s not nice, so he was naughty. He was, he was, he was.

So Joe knows that he shouldn’t hurt anyone?

Yes, that’s right, he knows that.

Do you think grown-ups know that, too?

Of course they do.

So no one should hurt another person.

That’s right.

But Joe hurt Rebecca, and then Joe’s Mummy hurt him when she punished him, didn’t she?

Yes, she did.

Why do grown-ups punish, frighten and hurt children, and then leave them all alone?

Because sometimes children are naughty.

And grown-ups are trying to stop children from being naughty?

Yes, grown-ups are trying to help them. They don’t really want to hurt them.

Or for them to feel bad inside.

That’s right.

But grown-ups don’t realize that when they punish a child for being naughty, they’re hurting them and causing them to believe in themselves as a naughty child.

So when they do that, they make them even naughtier, don’t they?

It certainly causes children to have hurt bodies, hurt feelings and hurt minds.

So how can we stop the grown-ups from doing this?

Perhaps, one day, people will realize that children do things according to the situation, based on what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling in the moment.

And that doesn’t mean they’re naughty, does it?

It’s only naughty when we say it is.

So if a grown-up doesn’t say, “That’s naughty,” then it’s not naughty?

That’s right.

Then what is it?

It’s just someone doing something because of this and because of that.

So what should grown-ups do?

When grown-ups stop thinking that children are naughty, everything will change.

How so?

They’ll think more about why a child did what they did, and better understand what the child was feeling and thinking.

Then what?

Then they can stop that from happening again, by doing things differently the next time.

So the grown-ups have to think about what they could’ve done differently, and how they might do it differently next time.

Yes, and comfort all those who are upset.

So no one feels left out and everyone feels loved. That’s nice.

So what you have learned about Joe and “naughty”?

Joe didn’t want to be left out. He was only three years old and wanted to join in, but he wasn’t allowed, then he felt angry and hurt Rebecca. Then he was punished for being naughty and was left all alone.

That was how it all started in the first place, because Joe didn’t want to be left out.

He didn’t want to play on his own.

He wanted to play with his big sister and her friends.

And then he was shut in a room, all alone.

Perhaps it was very exciting when all the other children arrived for the birthday party.

Joe thought he was going to play and have lots of fun.

But it didn’t turn out that way for him, did it?

They didn’t want to include him because they thought he’d ruin everything,

And he didn’t know that.

Then his Mummy thought he was very naughty.

And he ended up upset, hurt and all alone.

Will this all stop one day?

Perhaps one day, and then Joe’s Mummy will realize that there really is no such thing as naughty.


This piece is the fourth in a nine-part series of fiction stories that critically examines the use of the word “naughty”—by parents and other authority figures—to describe children who aren’t acting as the authority figures wish.

Check back here for the following five parts, which will be published throughout this spring and the early summer.

Read the previous story in the series, THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS NAUGHTY: Does the naughty step really work?»

Author bio:

Dr. Mike Larcombe is a Clinical Psychologist working in the U.K. “There’s No Such Thing as Naughty” was written some years ago, and is a fictionalized account of some genuine conversations about “naughty” he had with young children.
Illustrator bio:

Amy O’Neil graduated from University of the Arts London. She spends her time writing fiction, drawing and travelling with her partner and son. She currently lives in Latvia, where she’s finishing her first novel. If you’d like to get in touch with Amy, you can email her at