1 Dec 2021

Are you 'Naughty or Nice'?

Jo Emmerson

“Be good now, or Santa won’t bring you any presents” – the shop assistant winks at me as if she’s done me a huge favour threatening my child with being on the naughty list. When he was sitting perfectly happily minding his own business in the trolley.

I smile at my boy and tell him ‘you just be you and Santa and Mummy and Mama and everyone else who’s important will always love you’. I wink back at the shop assistant and say ‘He’s 4. He’s not capable of being naughty. Have a lovely day!” (yes, It was a passive-aggressive move, but that’s my kid they’re messing with.)



Here’s the thing. While we as adults are busy hanging decorations, picking up our boxes of Quality Street, cracking open the Shortbread and adding a little brandy to our hot chocolate, our kids are suddenly faced with huge pressure from friends, family and complete strangers, to ‘be good’.

And threatened that presents, love and affection will be withheld if they are ’naughty’ – there’s a whole song about some creepy old dude who ‘sees them when they’re sleeping’ – I mean really, why is he watching them sleep? How naughty can ANYONE be in their sleep, let alone a young child?



Santa aside, there are several reasons telling a child they are ‘naughty’ is a no-no.

1) Being ‘naughty’ implies intent and that the person being naughty understands that there will be a negative consequence of their actions. But children don’t really start to develop a grasp of ‘consequences’ until they are around 6 years old, and that understanding doesn’t approach the same level as most adults until at least 13 years old.
2) Children are not developmentally able to look at an action or situation and understand it in the same way we do. They simply don’t understand that it’s ‘naughty’.
3) Calling a child ‘naughty’ tells them who they are. The more they hear it, the more they believe it, the more they become it. And that’s not what anyone wants for their child.

So does that mean we have to ignore bad behaviour?
That we can’t call out our kids when they hit their siblings or rub Weetabix on the cat? No, of course not!

But instead of
- threatening that they won’t get any presents (when we all know they will, so it’s an empty threat anyway),
- sending them to away, to a naughty step, or chair, or their room or to be alone to ‘think about what they did’ (they will be thinking of moon rockets and unicorns or Minecraft anyway),
- ‘telling them off’ because we want them to feel bad about what they’ve done (we want our kids to feel bad??)
...why not try something that’s actually useful and will help them understand that we are not happy with their action, and reduce the likelihood of it happening again.

Explain that the thing they did was not ok. Get down to their level, and calmly tell them, ‘it’s not ok to empty the toothpaste tube all over the bathroom floor’.

For younger children (2-5 years) that’s really enough. You can shout and get upset and make them feel bad, but they truly won’t associate those feelings with the thing they just did. They won’t understand why you are shouting.
They will just start to think of you as someone who shouts and makes them feel sad sometimes.
Yes, I know – that is actually heart-breaking to hear.

There’s no point going into details about what they did or why they did it as they won't be listening. They’ve moved past the action already because their brains are like butterflies. Moments of intense concentration before fluttering off to the next interesting thing.

Instead, you can tell them that you are going to clean it up together. And yes, even if they actually make more mess in the cleaning process, they need to be involved – because this is how they learn not to do it again, and how they start to learn consequences. And how you raise children into teens and adults who clear up after themselves.


For older children (5-13 years) you can ask them, whilst you’re clearing the mess up together, what they were trying to do or what they were thinking about when they were squeezing the toothpaste.

Not to judge them or chastise, just to understand. If you need to take a moment to calm yourself (because kids can push our buttons, I know), go get a glass of water, and drink it before you start talking.

We want our children to grow up with inquisitive minds, so if it was an experiment, ask them how they could do it differently next time.

If it was because they were cross, or bored or needed your attention, again, talk it through. Did the squeezing make them feel better? If it did, could they find another outlet next time? It’s ok to be cross or bored, but it’s not ok to be destructive. If they needed your attention, then is an annoyed mama the kind of mama they wanted, or could they have asked you for a cuddle?

And here’s a tricky question… Did they actually ask you for help/cuddle/connection and you were busy?

More often than not, these negative behaviours are a ‘last resort’ when our children have needed us to stop what we’re doing and give them our focus. Yeah, I know sometimes, we can’t just stop – but can we set a timer on our phone? Or get them involved in what we’re doing? Or multitask? And when we do stop, can we give them a solid 10 minutes of phone-free, fully engaged one to one time?

At this time of year, everything feels much busier. The pressure to be festive and decorate every surface, to go out, to buy gifts, to cook food, to eat, drink and be merry… it’s a lot.

But don’t let that be the reason you give in to the ‘he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice’ brigade. Your kids are brilliant. You are brilliant. Believe it, remember it and make sure Santa and anyone else who’s asking knows that.

For more on the idea of respect, consequences and general parenting tips, come and join us on Monday 6th December for an informal 'Parent's Evening'. Booking Here

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