Happy kids in the future who don't know about naughty - There's no such thing as naughtyAdult: Why do you think grown-ups tell children they’re naughty and punish them?

Child: So they won’t do something that they did again.

They think the child will change, but it’s the other way around.

What do you mean?

The more often a child thinks they’re naughty, the naughtier they are.

So they get naughtier and naughtier.

When children are punished, they might feel embarrassed, ashamed, humiliated, frustrated or angry.

Is that because they think they’re naughty?

That’s right, and then they’re naughty again, because adults are using negative labelling and punishment to reinforce the belief, “I am naughty.”

What do you mean, “negative labelling” and “reinforce”?

When a child is told they’re naughty, and punished over and over again, they come to believe that they’re naughty.

So the naughty child might learn be a bully and hurt other children, and they might be rude to teachers and try to get into trouble.

Yes, and even if punishments like the naughty step worked, and a child stopped behaving in naughty ways, how do you think they would feel inside?

They’d be upset and have hurt feelings. They’d be unhappy and very sad.

Yes, the damage to the inside would be done.

When grown-ups punish children, they hurt them inside, don’t they?

Yes, and if this is done over and over, grown-ups then say that a child has “low self-esteem” and “lacks self-confidence.”

What does that mean?

That the damage has been done—the child’s thoughts and feelings have been harmed and damaged.

Is that like when a child has to sit on the naughty step every day, for what seems like forever?

Yes, it often happens when a child is repeatedly punished.

That’s so unfair. It’s the grown-ups who are naughty, isn’t it, because they teach children to think of themselves as naughty?

But the grown-ups don’t realize that this is what they’re doing.

Why not?

Because grown-ups believe in naughty. They think naughty is real and that it’s their job to do something about it.

Is that why parents and teachers are always saying that children are naughty?

I think so.

Then they’re the naughty ones.

Perhaps it’s naughty to believe in naughty!

Maybe, if it makes children think they’re bad, and then they feel so hurt and sad.

I’m afraid grown-ups think more about the behaviour of children than they do about what a child might be thinking and feeling.

They say they’re either good or naughty, don’t they?

Children are judged on their behaviour, and then how they feel about themselves depends on how adults have interpreted their behaviour.

Then what happens?

That depends on whether an adult is understanding or critical of their behaviour.

So what happens when children are told that they’re naughty, and are forced to change their behaviour when they don’t want to?

When children are labelled as naughty, and are forced to change against their will, they feel guilt and shame about being a naughty child.

That’s not good, is it?

Then they might feel anger towards grown-ups, and sometimes they take their anger out on other children and hurt them, or they blame and criticize themselves.

So other children might get hurt because grown-ups make the naughty ones hurt inside?

They probably feel like victims—like nobody understands them.

What’s a victim?

Someone who has suffered and now thinks life is unfair.

Sometimes I say it’s not fair.

Children who are punished over and over again can grow up seeing themselves as victims, and can become very sad, worried or angry at the world.

What do they do?

They’re more likely to have problems or hurt others.

Naughty victims?

The more a child is told that they’re naughty, the worse they feel and the naughtier they are.

That’s all because they’re told that they’re very naughty over and over again, isn’t it?

They are what they’ve been taught to believe they are.

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

Then they really believe they’re one of the naughty ones.

That’s terrible.

They learn to self-identify as a naughty and bad child.

Self-identify as naughty, what does that mean?

If I told you over and over that you’re naughty, you’d start to see yourself in negative ways, and eventually, you’d believe that’s who you are.

So what should grown-ups do when children are naughty?

Children will always do things that grown-ups disagree with for all sorts of reasons, but it doesn’t help anyone when children learn to see themselves in critical ways and then feel bad about their behaviour.

So if grown-ups stop teaching children to feel bad about themselves, what should they do instead?

The most important thing is to understand how much harm is done when grown-ups see children as naughty.

How much harm does it do?

Children learn to see themselves as naughty, and then one negative thing leads to another.

Is that why I don’t like myself when I’ve been naughty?

Yes, that’s it.

So what can grown-ups do about it?

When we no longer see a child’s behaviour as naughty, we might start to think about what a child is really feeling underneath their behaviour.

So how can grown-ups try to help with that?

By thinking about the best ways to help children learn to understand and care for themselves and others.

Will that stop children from being naughty?

Talking, listening, understanding, explaining and reasoning in caring and thoughtful ways—rather than criticizing and punishing—will be more likely to change a child’s behaviour in more positive ways.

Will children just be able to do whatever they want and be in charge?

No, of course not. Children need grown-ups to be in charge of helping them progress and to keep them safe.

That’s good.

Parents will always be responsible for doing their best for their children.

When grown-ups tell children they’re naughty, they think they’re doing their best, don’t they?

But does “naughty” help?

I don’t know, perhaps it stops the naughty children sometimes.

Can you remember what happens when a child is told that they’re naughty?

They think they’re naughty.

And how do they feel?Child labelled naughty is feeling bad as wagging finger is pointed at him - The naughty stepThey feel bad inside.

And what happens when children feel bad inside?

They’re naughty.

So that’s how grown-ups create naughty children.

So their bad feelings come out. I’ve never thought about it like that.

And sometimes feelings don’t come out. They stay inside, causing sadness and worry.

Grown-ups don’t know that they’re doing all of that, do they?

No, so it’s not anybody’s fault, because grown-ups learned how to be parents from their parents and teachers learned from their teachers.

Is it happening right now, isn’t it?

Yes, children today are learning patterns of behaviour from their parents and teachers.

But it’s no one’s fault?

No, because no one is naughty.

But unless we can stop it, it’ll carry on and on and on.

We can learn to think differently about naughty, and then we can act differently.

But how’s that going to happen, when everyone believes in naughty?

One by one, people will realize that there’s no such thing as naughty.

Then what will happen?

Then one day, it’ll all be over and there’ll be no more naughty.


This piece is the fifth 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 four 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: The boy who didn’t want to be alone»

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.