Adult: Tell me anything you like about children who are naughty.

Child: Well, when Lucy is naughty, her Mummy never smacks or spanks her. She only shouts at her and puts her on the naughty step. Lucy doesn’t like her Mummy shouting at her or crying, and she doesn’t like going on the naughty step.

Does Lucy go on the naughty step when she’s done something that her Mummy didn’t want her to do?

Yes, when she has done something wrong.

And does Lucy have to go on the naughty step when she doesn’t do something that her Mummy wants her to do?

It happens when she won’t do as she’s told.

So is this what grown-ups call naughty?

“Naughty” happens when children do something wrong and when they don’t do as they’re told.

I see, so naughty happens when a child does something that a grown-up doesn’t want them to do. 

Sometimes it’s don’t do this or don’t do that, and if you do, you’re naughty.

And also when a child won’t do something that a grown-up does want them to do.

Sometimes it’s do this or do that right away, and if you don’t do it right away, you’re naughty.

Tell me about the naughty step.

The naughty step is somewhere a child goes when they’re naughty, and if they’re very naughty, they stay there for a very long time.

Why do grown-ups put children there?

It’s instead of shouting or smacking. You have to think about what you did and how you can make up for it. You can think about how you shouldn’t have done it, and how you can apologize.

Do the children there think of themselves as naughty?

Well, they feel sad, upset and bad inside.Child labelled naughty is feeling bad as wagging finger is pointed at him - The naughty stepWhat do you think they’re thinking when they feel so upset?

That they’re naughty. They believe it.

Then what happens?

Then they’re naughty all over again.

What about when someone says that they’re good and well-behaved? Do they believe that, too?

Yes, but if a child is put on the naughty step every day for a week, and only told that they’re good once, they won’t believe that they’re good.

So children believe that they’re good sometimes and naughty sometimes?

They might, but if a child is told over and over again that they’re naughty, then they’ll believe they’re naughty all the time.

Oh, I see, so sitting a child on the naughty step over and over again will cause the child to think of themselves as a naughty child?

Obviously.

And then they feel bad inside, don’t they?

Of course they do.

But grown-ups think punishment makes children behave well.

That’s why they do it.

So grown-ups think that if a child is punished, they’ll think about what they did and not do it again?

Yes, that’s what grown-ups think.

But actually, the child feels hurt and angry, and then thinks angry, hurt thoughts.

Then they’re naughtier and naughtier.

I see, so grown-ups must think that the naughtier the child, the more punishment they need, as this will make them behave well and be good.

Yes, that’s right.

So grown-ups are trying to turn naughty children into good, well-behaved children.

Yes, but naughty children are always in trouble.

They’re trying to make children change their behavior, but the problem is, punishing them makes them feel bad inside.

When I’m in trouble, that’s how I feel.

Grown-ups are trying to change how children behave on the outside, but instead, they make how they think and feel on the inside worse.

I feel sad and angry when I’ve been naughty, and think it’s not fair. I want to be good, but I just can’t do it.

 How do you think the inside is shown on the outside?

When a child feels bad inside, they’re naughty—on the outside.

I see, so punishment doesn’t work, because all it does is make children feel negative inside. Then they think that they’re naughty, and then they are naughty.

It’s grown-ups who are doing it, aren’t they?

It’s looking that way.

They’re the ones actually making children naughty, aren’t they?

Do you see naughty children turning into well-behaved children because they have to sit on the naughty step?

No, they get worse because they’re angry and unhappy all the time.

So what really happens is that the children who have to sit on the naughty step become naughtier, because the more they’re punished, the worse they feel.Group of so-called bad kids on naughty step - The naughty step (2)That’s right.

The worse they feel on the inside, the more they believe they’re one of the naughty children, and then they’re actually more naughty—on the outside. 

Then they become even more unhappy and angry.

So they sit on the naughty step feeling hurt and angry, and thinking unkind thoughts about themselves and others.

Then they’re naughty all over again.

Their naughty behaviour matches their unkind thoughts and angry, sad, hurt feelings.

And then it’s the naughty step again and again, and on and on it goes.

Oh dear, it’s such a muddle, isn’t it?

It’s a ginormous muddily old muddle.

One day, do you think all the children in the world will stop being naughty?

That will never happen. Children will always be naughty.

What do you think would happen if all the grown-ups in the world were to stop believing in naughty?

Then it would all come true—there really would be no such thing as naughty.

No more naughty.

And I wouldn’t be naughty anymore, yay!

This piece is the third 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 six parts, which will be published throughout this spring and the early summer.

Read the first part of this series, THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS NAUGHTY: It’s just a concept we’ve made up, and the second part, THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS NAUGHTY: The McDonald’s incident»

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 amygrace2@gmail.com.