Naughty is a term that seems to be more likely to be used with younger children, yet what do they understand of this word? Children appear this word from a young age and often mimic adults by repeating the it without actually knowing what it means. Over the years the more I have learnt about behaviour, the more I have come to really dislike the word naughty.
So what exactly does it mean?
After searching a number of dictionaries the most popular definition of the word naughty is ‘(especially of a child) badly behaved; disobedient.’ Looking a little further there was a description of badly behaved in the online Oxford Dictionary. I was really surprised to see words such, ‘disobedient, bad, misbehaved, misbehaving, wayward, defiant, unruly, insubordinate, wilful, self-willed, delinquent, undisciplined, unmanageable, uncontrollable, ungovernable, unbiddable, disorderly, disruptive, mutinous, fractious, refractory, recalcitrant, errant, wild, wicked, obstreperous, difficult, troublesome, awkward, contrary, perverse, attention-seeking, exasperating, incorrigible.
Given how often the word naughty is used, many of these words seem like an extreme way to describe children! Perhaps that is half of the problem. It is a very general word which is used in so many different contexts.
There are a few issues which I have with the use of the word ‘naughty.’
1. It is generally used to describe a child rather than their behaviour.
2. Even when it does describe behaviour, it offers a very general description. It does not really give
the child an indication of the behaviour you do not approve of. Therefore what do they learn from
being called ‘naughty?’
3. Behaviour is a form of communication – While they may not be communicating their message in
the best way, what they are trying communicate may be very valid!
4. Younger children are often exploring their environment. While their behaviour may not always be
safe, it does not make it wrong. They are still learning about their environment.
So while the word ‘naughty’ is used often, it is not an effective way to change behaviour which should always be our goal. Rather than labelling behaviour, it would be more productive to first try to work out what the child is trying to communicate through their behaviour. Then help to support them to use a more appropriate way of communicating their message or support them to explore their environment safely.