Alternatives to the naughty step

“It’s as easy to make someone feel reassured and good as it is to destroy that person”

(Eleanore Phillips Colt).

Many of us struggle to know the best way to discipline young children and have resorted to the “naughty step”, a well-known approach promoted by Jo Frost in the Super Nanny TV series. It involves making a child (age 2-6 years) sit on a “naughty step” for a few minutes to reflect on their inappropriate behaviour and then say sorry before leaving it.

On the face of it using the naughty step seems like a reasonable approach to ‘put a stop’ to unwanted behaviour. You may have tried it, perhaps even with some success at the time. You may also have become frustrated at having to physically restrain a child who tries to escape or become upset when a child reacts defiantly or rudely. This is not your fault because the concept of the naughty step is fundamentally flawed.

The naughty step, just like other punitive and shaming forms of punishment like grounding or taking things away, may seem to work in that they stop an unwanted behaviour in the moment, but they often have unintended results:

  • Resentment and rebellion
  • Reduced self-worth
  • a “naughty” identity which can become self-fulfilling
  • co-operation out of fear
  • no learning about self-discipline or understanding of how to rectify mistakes.

It is important to remember that the purpose of discipline is teaching, whereas punishment is intended to cause a child pain. As parents, we need to be clear about what we are trying to do. We should be helping the child to develop internal discipline, i.e. the capacity to make the right choices even when there are influences to do otherwise.

It’s also worth remembering that all misbehaviour arises because a need is not being met. A so-called “naughty” child is using an inappropriate strategy to meet his needs.

What should you do?

Every child is different and what works well for one may not for another. But a positive approach to discipline is always more effective than the naughty step or other types of punishment.

Try this “mistakes process”:

  1. Approach the matter without anger or judgment. Make sure you are calm before you try to deal with a situation. Wait until later if necessary.
  2. Encourage the child to admit what happened and that it was a mistake. Ensure they understand why it was a mistake. If the child says ‘I didn’t mean to’ don’t lecture her on how that doesn’t matter as the harm is done anyway. Instead descriptively praise the child for not meaning to. (“I’m pleased that you know it wasn’t the right thing to do. I understand that you may not have done it if you had thought about it”) Don’t just ask why she did it. Discuss how the behaviour happened. This may be a good point to try a hug or perhaps some “time in” – sometimes it helps to bring your child closer to you and give them a few minutes of your undivided attention and a safe space in which to express their feelings (frustration, sadness, jealousy etc). My parenting mantra is “connection before correction”!
  3. Make amends and say sorry. It is important for the child to make amends in an age-appropriate way. They may need to clear up a mess or make recompense by doing something for someone. A verbal apology is pointless if the child does not really mean it at the time. Better to wait until they are ready and able to be sincere. (“You may be thinking you should not have done this. When you’re ready you’ll also need to apologise out loud.”)
  4. Alter behaviour. What can you learn from this? What can you do differently? What would help you not to do it again? Maybe we need to change the environment or make a new rule to prevent it happening again.
  5. Acceptance. Forgive yourself. We want our children to know when they have done something wrong and also how to clear up a mistake. If they make amends the matter is over and should not be mentioned again. The last word should always be a positive one. Children need to know we love them even when we are disciplining them.

Many parents think discipline is a question of being either strict or lenient, tough or soft, authoritarian or permissive. Consequently, their relationship with their children becomes a power struggle, a battle of wills. But co-operation is never fostered by making a child do something. So love your child and use positive discipline. Give yourself and your child time to adjust to this new way of doing things. But remember that the purpose of discipline is to help a child develop internal self-discipline and stick with it!

Learn more about positive discipline by joining one of my courses or workshops, or book a personal parenting consultation.

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