No such thing as ‘naughty’: How the language we use shapes our children

Source: ParentTV on 2 Sep 2020

‘Right, it’s bedtime,’ you say to your child when they put down their fork at the dinner table. ‘School tomorrow. Can you please take your plate to the sink?’

Your child looks at you. ‘But –’

‘Come on, get a wriggle on,’ you say. ‘Let’s move a bit faster.’

They look down at their plate, but don’t move.

‘Why are you still sitting there? Did you hear me? I said it’s bedtime, NOW.’


Your child takes their half-empty dinner plate and tips it, slowly and deliberately, onto the floor. Gravy sinks into the rug and peas roll across the floor. They stomp away, making sure to smush a few peas under their heels as they go. 

You’re seething, triggered beyond belief! It feels so personal, a calculated move designed to make you fly off the handle. So, you do.

‘Come back here this instant and pick up that plate! You’re so naughty, I can’t believe you did that!’

Your child shouts back something revolting, bursts into tears, goes to their room and slams the door.

So, what’s wrong with this picture?

The behaviour is upsetting, that’s for sure. For just about any parent, this would feel really frustrating and like your child is not respecting you, your shared home or your dinner efforts. But, is it ‘naughty’ and should you tell them they’re being naughty when they do it? Well, for starters, ‘naughty’ is a pretty outdated term, as ParentTV expert and parenting guru, Maggie Dent, points out. ‘Children make poor choices because of what’s going on for them. We understand now that there’s a need behind every behaviour,’ says Maggie, ‘and that’s what your child is expressing. All behaviour is communication, so we need to be detectives and try and work out what they’re saying when they behave how they do.’

WATCH: Is your child being ‘naughty’ or just not coping? With Maggie Dent

WATCH: Discipline without damage doesn’t mean without limits, boundaries or growing up, with Dr Vanessa Lapointe

So, does this mean we have to put up with any behaviour just because it’s driven by need? Certainly not, confirms ParentTV expert and Psychologist, Dr Vanessa Lapointe. ‘It’s very important to have boundaries and limits for our kids and be kind but firm in holding them. This is what propels them forward and helps them develop and actualise.’ But, when we understand the motivations for our kids’ behaviour, it’s much easier to respond effectively and work out how to prevent things like this behaviour happening in the first place. Consider these possibilities: Maybe your child wasn’t actually finished eating and they were still hungry. Maybe they were nervous about school tomorrow because they’ve been bullied or they have a test. Maybe they’d promised another parent they’d load the dishwasher after dinner to earn pocket money. Maybe they just needed a little more time to process and respond to your words. These things don’t make it okay for your child to tip their dinner on the floor, but they do make it clearer why they reacted the way they did, right? 

Telling a child they’re naughty can be problematic in other ways too, according to our experts, particularly if it happens regularly. ‘The messages our kids receive from us can be internalised and become a part of their identity,’ says Dr Lapointe.

When children hear these things, they start to make a connection between their performance and their value or worth as a human being. They think that if they behave well and do the things the grown-ups want them to do, then they’re a good kid. Then, as they get older, they adapt this belief to: if I perform, then I am worthy.

Dr Vanessa Lapointe

You can imagine where this can end up. These kids become adults who put a lot of pressure on themselves to achieve, succeed and be demonstrably valuable, rather than believing they have intrinsic worth as a human. That’s a game that’s hard to win…

WATCH: Why your child needs a positive disposition to themselves as a learner, with Nathan Wallis

WATCH: How to help your child improve their self-esteem, with Dr Charlotte Reznick

The other issue with the ‘naughty’ word is the same issue with any other label – it sticks. Any labels we give kids are limiting, because they define and confine. They pigeonhole and don’t allow for the variation in humans, plus they can overwhelm other facets of a child’s behaviour or character and become a self-fulfilling prophecy for them. Often, they’re actually just a value judgement on a behaviour, so they’re pretty subjective, too. Consider the example of a child who is trying really hard at something. If the thing they’re striving for is something the parent supports, like good marks at school, they might describe that child as ‘persistent’ or ‘determined’, both of which have positive connotations. But, if the behaviour is something the parent doesn’t support, like insisting on only eating certain foods, the child is called ‘stubborn’ or ‘wilful’. If we as adults reach far enough back into our minds, we can probably still recall the labels we were given as kids, and feel the sting of them if they were framed as a negative. Not many kids fit comfortably in boxes! 

WATCH: Understanding your child’s personality, with Dr Kaylene Henderson

What’s more, a child’s personality is always evolving and it’s unfair to try and pin them down too early, says ParentTV Expert and Psychiatrist, Dr Kaylene Henderson.

The temperament of kids is the inherent nature they were born with, and that tends to remain pretty steady, but their personality will continue to change, depending on their experiences, environment and interactions with others.

Dr Kaylene Henderson

So, if we keep telling our children that they’re naughty or stubborn, we deny them the chance to grow and change, to become different to how they were or apply a characteristic in a different way, like using their persistence to overcome a challenge. Ultimately, the best thing we can do for our kids is offer our love, support and acceptance as they go through this growth, says Dr Henderson. ‘Our job is to respect the kids we have, those ones that have been born to us in the lucky dip of parenting, and strive to bring out their best.’

Hear, hear!

Related Tag: child early learning