Adult: We don’t call grown-ups naughty, do we?

Child: We say they’re bad people who do bad things to people, such as burglars and people who hurt children or kill people.

Grown-ups who do those things need to be stopped, but are they bad people?

Of course they’re bad people, silly.

They’ve forgotten how to care about others and themselves.

But surely there are bad people who do wrong, and that makes them naughty people who deserve to be punished, right?

That’s true, when we live in a world where we judge people for doing right or wrong, being good or bad, or naughty and not naughty.

We know there are things we shouldn’t do, don’t we?

We have rules and laws, which we agree or disagree with.

So we all have our own opinions about the law?

We also have our own personal interpretations and views about what we do and what others do.

So we have our own thoughts about what’s naughty and what’s not naughty.

And we use the law and our own opinions to judge what others do, while they do the same to us.

So everyone’s trying to sort out what they can and can’t do.

All of us are judging ourselves and everyone else, and people don’t always agree about what should be allowed and not allowed.

So everyone argues about all of that.

Basically, it’s all about what people believe is naughty and not naughty.

But there has to be right and wrong, and good people and bad people?

There’s no such thing as a good person or a bad person.


It depends on what we think. One person might think something should be allowed, and another will say no, that shouldn’t be allowed.

But what about the law, the police, judges, and armies and wars and stuff like that?

One person agrees with the law and another doesn’t, and some people break the law. In wars, each person fighting thinks they’re on the side that’s right and good.

Well, people know the difference between right and wrong and good and bad, and everyone knows you’re not allowed to break the law.

What we do is based on what we think, and what we think is based on our experiences, including what has happened to us in the past and what we were taught to believe.

Are you really saying that people who kill others or hurt children aren’t bad?

Think of them as if they were a machine or computer that has malfunctioned.Computer with a face malfunctioning - There's no such thing as naughtySo are they broken?

There’s a problem with the way they’re thinking, and because of this, they harm others.

So it’s their thinking that’s wrong, is that it?

People are punished for their actions, which are driven by their thoughts.

But it’s their own fault for thinking the wrong thoughts and doing bad things, so those who break the law are just plain old grown-up naughty.

But what we’ve learned to think and do has been influenced by others.

So what a person thinks depends on what they were taught, and whether people have been nice or mean to them.

Yes, their thoughts and actions are shaped by their past experiences.

What someone did to them.

And by the emotions they’re feeling.

Like when we’re sad or angry.

Perhaps, most of all, our thinking is influenced by what we believe.

We still know when we’re naughty and when we’re not naughty, don’t we?

People usually think their actions are justified and right.

Well, there’s no excuse when a grown-up does something bad.

Doing happens because of thinking.

It’s still their fault.

 A supposedly naughty grown-up might think that what they did was the same as what their friends and even their family would do—or, in war, they did what they were ordered to do.

So sometimes they copy, and sometimes they do what they’re told to do.

Yes, and we all learn to do things automatically, without even thinking about it.

So they just do it and don’t really know why, just like me.

They might not be able to feel their emotions, or they might feel too much emotion.

Like when my feelings make me do naughty things.

It all depends on what we’re thinking and believing at the time.

Are grown-ups who do bad things sorry afterwards, like I am?

Afterwards, some might be sorry and some not sorry, but at the time they did it, each person who did something bad wouldn’t have considered themselves bad or evil.

Is that why some bad grown-ups keep being bad?

Their thoughts, beliefs and feelings make them do it.

I think they shouldn’t do it, not when it hurts people.

If you or I had the same lives as those people, and we had the same thoughts and feelings in the same situations, then we’d also do the same things as the so-called bad people.

I wouldn’t.

And they wouldn’t if they were you, and if they thought and felt the same as you.

Then they’d be just like me.

What happens today influences what happens tomorrow.

So if bad things happen to me now, will I have bad thoughts in the future, and then do bad things?

People who do harmful things probably have become that way because of what happened to them in the past.

I’ve done naughty things because my friends did them, and sometimes, because they told me to do it.

Just like grown-ups do.

I’m naughty sometimes when I think it’s not fair, like when I really, really want something, and sometimes I’m just angry and cross.

And so are grown-ups, sometimes.

So were they naughty children?

Many probably grew up believing they were naughty.

Can they change?

Some can, but some don’t want to or think they should. Others just don’t care anymore. Some don’t even think about it, and some don’t know how to stop themselves. Some try but just can’t do it.

That’s just like me. Sometimes I try but just can’t do it.

Sometimes we know we shouldn’t do something, but we do it anyway. Sometimes we don’t think about it, and sometimes we don’t realize that a particular thing is a bad thing to do.

There are millions of reasons why people are naughty, aren’t there?

It all starts when children learn about naughty and are punished.

And then they become naughty grown-ups?

Those people are more likely to feel sad, hurt and angry.

So they weren’t very happy children, were they?

An unhappy child is more likely to become a grown-up who thinks there’s something wrong with them, and that they’re living in a unfair, depressing or even terrible world. They become either sad or bad, or both.

I wonder what would really happen if children didn’t know about naughty.

Naughty children wouldn’t grow up into naughty adults.Two happy kids, boy and girl, holding hands - There's no such thing as naughtyBecause there would be no naughty children, would there?

And no such thing as naughty.

So nobody would be naughty.

Nobody ever was.

This piece is the sixth 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 three 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: Believing in naughty is naughty»

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