Why the naughty step has never worked for us

A child walking down a spiral staircase at a castle. A medieval naughty step?!

Every now and then, I’m asked to take part in radio debates about parenting topics. It’s something I never imagined myself doing but that I enjoy nonetheless.

This week, I appeared on two different BBC local channels – Kent and Three Counties, for the record – discussing the same topic. Namely, the demise of the naughty step.

According to a recent survey, 74% of nurseries have abandoned using the naughty step while 95% don’t use the word ‘naughty’ because of the negative connotations attached to it.

Some have argued that this is ‘political correctness gone mad’ and that it’s symptomatic of parents becoming softer. I disagree.

As I mentioned recently, my parenting style has evolved significantly since becoming a dad. I’ve made plenty of mistakes and have learned from them.

I’ve also attempted different approaches to discipline with varying degrees of success. The naughty step was one of the first.

It didn’t work for us when we tried it on oldest. He would merrily amble upstairs and empty all the drawers, which defeated the object somewhat!

We also tried what we referred to as “the naughty corner” but that didn’t work either.

Of course, there was a strong element of he and his brother not wanting to stay put, but I do think there was an issue of language too.

When a parent tells a child that they’re being naughty, this can be taken a couple of ways.

On the one hand, they may understand that what they are doing is wrong. On the other, they could interpret this as meaning they’re a bad person.

This is why I think it’s so important to make a clear distinction between children themselves and the behaviour they are displaying.

On a related point, I now try to avoid using the word ‘naughty’. Even saying something like “you’re being naughty” can confuse younger kids.

My three-year-old is a good example of this. The other day she was playing up at bedtime and I mistakenly told her that her behaviour was naughty. She became visibly concerned and replied: “I want to be good”.

To me, her reaction suggested that she thought I was talking about her overall character rather than her refusal to go to bed.

Children notice a lot more than we sometimes give them credit for. This includes how adults behave differently towards those perceived as good and naughty.

Ask any child who the naughty ones among their peers are and they’ll have an immediate answer. And, more often than not, it’s clear that they don’t want to be like the naughty ones.

There’s also the risk that calling a child naughty too often can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, for me at least, ‘naughty’ is a word that is best avoided. That’s not to say that I’m soft on bad behaviour. I just find that other approaches work better for us.

Of course, all children are different and there’s also no such thing as a foolproof way that will work every time. For what it’s worth though, calmly communicating is my go-to method.

I tell my children why certain behaviours are wrong and ask them what the better option would be. They also know that good behaviour is rewarded.

In terms of punishment, they lose privileges like screen time if they misbehave. I’m not saying that this is the best approach – this is just the one that works for us.

I’d be really interested to learn how other parents approach behaviour. Have you ever used the naughty step and, if so, did it work for you?

What about your choice of words? Are there any that you will or won’t use?

Tell me in the comments below!


  1. Katie

    I’ve always tried to refer to the behaviour as naughty rather than the child. Clear Communications about behaviour expectations and discussion around why the behaviour isn’t appropriate, acceptable or safe has definitely worked best for us. As like you say it’s easy to underestimate just how much even very young children can understand because they are young or they can not verbally communicate. Having said that and having the knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the route we always take. An increase in children and demand combined with a prolonged lack of sleep more frequently leads to a lack of energy, persistence and patience, culminating in what is easiest and least stressful to uphold. I had so many ideas and opinions on how was best to raise and discipline children but a full force smack of reality quickly swiped the confidence and optimism away. I definitely believe now that everyone has to find what works best for them. No one is ever going to get it perfectly right but as long as your trying your succeeding.

  2. Oliver Messner

    I fully agree with this post.

    My youngest daughter is, to put it mildly, a handful and we’ve tried any number of things to teach her the error of her ways when she does something bad.

    She’s two and a half and at that ‘wonderful’ age where she is testing to see how far she can push her parents. While some of her antics really are cringe worthy, I have also tried to stop using the word naughty in such situations.

    A little while ago I was telling her what a beautiful, good little princess she was. She shook her head and said that she was not good but that she was naughty.

    After that I stopped using ‘naughty’ to describe her or her actions, as that incident made me feel like a major idiot. I now try to use words and phrases such as unkind or not very nice and then telling her how good, kind or clever she was when she did something nice.

    It’s a bit of a learning process but it seems to be working.

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