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The Naughty Step - its use and the alternatives

Every parenting conversation I've had recently seems to bring up the subject of young children's behaviour and, specifically, "the naughty step". I've been asked for my views on this method of discipline and, having seen it used on many occasions, I hope this feature might help anyone who is considering putting this method into practice.

We all know that babies and young children need to be guided by their parents into learning the right ways to behave. The "right" way is frequently the socially acceptable way (don't bite or hit anyone; say please and thank you); often it is the safe way (stop at the edge of the road; don't touch the hot oven door); sometimes it is our own definition of manners (try not to interrupt when I am talking; eat what is on your plate). Instilling good behaviour into children is a never-ending and on-going process. It's not going to happen overnight, it needs perseverance and consistency, and there really aren't any shortcuts or quick fixes.

The principle of "the naughty step" seems to be the modern equivalent of being sent to your bedroom. The way it works is that, when a child behaves in an unacceptable way, they are encouraged to sit on the step in silence until they have calmed down, at which point they are permitted to return to the rest of the family. The theory is that this gives the child valuable time out and defuses the tension for everyone else. The long-term use of this method means that you can threaten the naughty step the next time the child misbehaves, and in theory they will then do as they are told to avoid being put on it again.

Sometimes it works a treat; there are occasions where a child so hates being put away from everyone else that he quickly learns the rules of behaviour and things improve for the parents. However, I have often been looking after a baby in a household where the nanny caring for the older children has been trying to use the naughty step. This is usually because the parents are keen on its use. These poor nannies often find themselves chasing the children round the house trying to get them on to the step. The initial misdemeanour is completely forgotten, as everyone gets upset trying either to implement or avoid the naughty step discipline.

If you do decide to adopt this method, there are a few questions worth considering in advance:

  • At what age can you try using it?
  • What sort of behaviour do you use it for?
  • What do you do if the child won't sit on it?
  • What do you do if the child's behaviour doesn't improve, regardless of the naughty step threat?
  • What alternatives are there?

In my view, the naughty step can only be used for children aged between about two-and-a-half and five years. By the age of two-and-a-half, most children should be capable of following simple instructions. Once a child is five and in full-time school, there are a whole new set of rules, and home needs to be a safe and secure place for them to relax after the demands of a school day.

I have recently spoken to a few parents who were trying to use the naughty step when their child wouldn't eat (more of this later). Other parents have told me that they use it when a child breaks or damages something, but that their partners will use it for rudeness. This sums up one of the main problems of this particular punishment - inconsistency. Use of the naughty step needs to be absolutely consistent. If you want to try it you, your partner and your children need to sit down and discuss the issue together. Is it a punishment for violence towards a sibling or other child? Is it for damage to toys or other household items? Is it for disobedience? Or what about rudeness? If you are not all clear what all the rules are, then it will never work as a deterrent. Nor will you see an improvement in children's behaviour if one day they are put on the step for writing on the wall, but the next day daddy lets them off after they break a sibling's toy. You will simply end up confusing and upsetting your child and getting personally frustrated.

Nor can you depend entirely on the naughty step to discipline your child because its use is limited to your own home. There is no equivalent when you are out and about or at a friend's house. There will be children who work this out and take advantage of being in a public place to throw a tantrum. Also, many mothers tell me that behaviour which might not bother them one day, drives them crazy the next. This is perfectly understandable - mothers today are under tremendous pressure, frequently trying to manage children, homes and jobs. But it sends very confusing messages to your children if the use of the naughty step is dependent upon how happy and relaxed you are.

There are some children who will go straight to the step for their time out when their parents ask them. But in the majority of cases I have witnessed, the child is being disobedient in the first place, so why should we expect them to sit on the step when requested? They resist. The parents become angrier. The sanctions have to escalate as the resistance becomes more embedded. Five minutes on the naughty step soon turns into ten minutes in a room by themselves, confiscation of a favourite toy, cancellation of a forthcoming treat, no television for a day, and so on. A minor misdemeanour can escalate into a major crime and parents feel desperate to take back control.

But over and above any practical issues, my main problem with the naughty step is the fundamental message of punishment that it sends to the child. It simply doesn't allow any room for rewarding good behaviour. It is an essentially negative way of dealing with your children. Put yourself in the place of your child and imagine that you have had a bad day at work. You are tired and hungry and don't feel like doing much. Your husband comes home and you are short-tempered with him. Instead of trying to understand why you are not feeling cheerful and relaxed, your husband insists you sit by yourself in a corner until you are able to be nice again. Children under five are not able to explain why they feel the way they do. They have no sense of how their feelings affect their behaviour, but those feelings are there regardless.

I appreciate that what the vast majority of parents are trying to do is teach their children how to behave in order that home life is peaceful, relaxing and fun for everyone. My preferred approach has always been to positively reinforce the good behaviour, not to highlight the bad. I don't even like to use the word "naughty" with a child. When I have cared for older children I have found they respond far more effectively and quickly when they are praised and encouraged for what they do well. I'm a big fan of a parenting technique called descriptive praise.  This is where you praise a child by describing to them exactly what it is that you think they have done well. For example:

  • "It was really great how you helped to tidy up the toys just then."
  • "You sat so nicely with your toys while mummy fed the baby. Thank you."
  • "Thank you for asking to leave the table; what lovely manners you have."
  • "Granny thought you were very good at saying please and thank you."
  • "That was very clever of you to wait for me by the road."

Experts advise that parents try and say five positive things like this to their children before breakfast! They suggest that you praise your children not just for doing things right, but also for not doing them wrong:

  • "That was great how you managed to get one sock on by yourself today."

If you have never tried this with your child, you might feel a bit silly at first as you go over the top in your enthusing. But you should notice a dramatic improvement in their behaviour. Think back to that occasion when you snap at your husband about leaving his shoes in the middle of the hallway. Instead of sending you to your room, he tells you how hard he realises you have been working recently. He tells you how much he appreciates the efforts you make at home. Your temper vanishes. You probably pick his shoes up yourself. The point being that we all respond better to positivity. We all like to feel that our efforts are noticed and valued, however small.

Another thing that may seem obvious is to take the time to explain things to children, rather than just saying "no". All mothers are under pressure at times and sometimes expect too much from their children, but even very young children can understand a simple explanation of why the hot tap shouldn't be touched or why it isn't a good idea to run across the road. When your child is older you might find you get a lot more cooperation when you explain why it isn't possible to go somewhere at a particular time or why a friend can't come over to play that day. Empathise with their feelings of disappointment or frustration and discuss alternative plans if appropriate. Being on the same side as your child can go a long way to avoiding conflict; and the channels of communication that open between you now will stand you in stead when your little baby becomes a great big teenager!

As well as praising your children for their good behaviour, you could try using star charts. I have found these very effective for solving specific problems. If it's driving you mad that toys aren't tidied away when you ask, or that the toilet isn't being flushed after use, introduce a star chart for encouragement. A row or a whole card full of stars can mean a treat, such as a toy or a special trip, but try not to use sweets or food as a reward.

Which brings me to an area where I feel it is dangerous to use the naughty step. I was concerned recently that a few parents were using it when their children were not eating any or all of their meals. Few things annoy parents as much as fussy children who turn up their noses at perfectly good food. I know that mothers can be driven to the point of tears when, at the end of a long day, their carefully prepared meal ends up in the bin or the dog. But there is nothing more likely to stop a child from eating than tension and anxiety. I advise parents never to argue with a child about eating what is on their plates. It simply results in everyone getting upset. Instead, make it clear there is no alternative and remove the food immediately. I have watched parents cajole children into eating, bribe them with puddings and threaten them with punishments if they don't eat. None of these is the ideal way to approach fussy eating, and the threat of a punishment is more likely to physically prevent a child from eating as he becomes tense and upset. Could you eat a plate of food after someone had threatened you? With eating disorders and problems of obesity among children on the increase, parents generally need to be very careful what messages they attach to food and eating.

The final choice as to whether you use any method of punishment for your children's behaviour is down to you and your partner. Every child is different and you should try to find an approach to discipline that suits your child's temperament. The more suitable it is, the easier and more effective it will be. In my experience, the majority of children respond far better to positive praise and reinforcement of good behaviour than they ever do to negativity and being told that they are "naughty" or, even worse, "bad"; a tip - try to think in terms of your child's 'behaviour' being appropriate or inappropriate, rather than your actual child being good or otherwise. Like all of us, children get tired and cranky, but in general they want to please. So, focus on their positive behaviour, rewarding them with plenty of attention and praise, and where possible play down any inappropriate behaviour. It's a simple message, but in my experience it has a powerful effect.

In-depth and detailed advice about fussy eating, including how to encourage your child to eat more fruit and vegetables, can be found in The Contented Child's Food Bible.

Advice on typical toddler behaviour, such as arguments about bedtime, tantrums and aggressive behaviour, can be found in From Contented Baby to Confident Child.

Gina Ford © 2017


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