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Alfie and I were off on more adventures this weekend, seeing some of my amazing family. Thanks to Keith being busy elsewhere, Alfie and I had a rare chance to co sleep and so when I snuck into bed snuggled up to him at midnight on Friday, I was hopeful of having a rare lie in wherein we woke up refreshed and smiling and ready to face the day.

Apparently “lie in” has undergone a slight redefinition since my student days.

I’m not sure what happened at 4am, perhaps a cow farted 3 counties over, but whatever it was clearly signalled to my little boy that sleep time was over and it was time for us to wake up and start the day. He wasn’t subtle in communicating this to me, his preferred method being to bounce up and down shouting while smacking me on the side of the head until I gave in and opened my eyes. There was no reasoning, forcing or otherwise persuading him to change his mind: He was awake and he WANTED TO PLAY!!!!

In order to save the sanity of the rest of the household, I dragged my bones out of bed and took Alfie down to the kitchen where he enthusiastically indulged in some fridge magnet hurling and I sat at the table drinking tea and trying to ignore the tired shakes.

I think as a form of escapism, my mind drifted off to a place where it could meander through a daisy field of self examination and unsurprisingly it settled on the theme of the word “naughty”.

Like a lot of people of my and older generations I have a reluctant familiarity with the word naughty. There were times when it was my second name and it was one of those words that I never actually took the time to examine, but the general principle of which made me feel hugely uncomfortable.

When Alfie got old enough to start challenging Keith and I, we very quickly needed to have a discussion about how to address his behaviour and my input was very strongly that I didn’t want us, or anyone else around him, to use the word naughty. I felt so strongly about it I remember sitting there shaking at how passionately I hated the idea of applying the word to a child of mine.

Discussion of the word naughty has been around for a few years now, and like a lot of parenting topics, there are two diverging camps – one who see traditional methods as the wisdom of ages and others who are re-examining the old ways and finding them wanting.

No prizes for guessing which camp I’m in. No really, no prizes, I can’t afford them at the moment.

One problem I have with the word naughty is that it is an easy label, not just for behaviour but for a child themselves. And I mean easy for adults, because it’s a pretty crappy label for a child to have to deal with on any level and also one that is almost entirely devoid of any logical explanation. Naughty is the very epitome of an abstract concept for a child. If you look at what naughty means it changes every time it is used. Naughty basically means “guess what you’ve done that has pissed me off and stop doing it”. For a child who is learning about behaviours that is a horrible burden to place on them.

Alfie does about a hundred things a day that could be called naughty. Was his 4am behaviour naughty? Well a lot of parents would have said so, yes. But what would I have actually meant by calling him naughty? Well I suppose I would have meant that waking me up at 4am was inconvenient, and that doing so by whacking me repeatedly on the face was unpleasant and that I wasn’t in a place to appreciate the explosion of excitement and emotion that was manifested in that way. I wasn’t in that place because I was exhausted and my brain was screaming OHMYGODCHILDSHUTUPANDSLEEPBEFOREIFEEDYOUTOTHECAT!!!!! But that’s my problem, not his, I shouldn’t have gone to bed at midnight. Would he have even understood which element of that entire scenario I was referring to if I had called him naughty? Or understood what I wanted him to do differently?

The other issue I have with the quicksand definition of the word is that it is also based on the premise that I, as the caller, am right and you, as the callee, are wrong. Always. There is no room for discussion or negotiation. I don’t feel comfortable putting myself up on that pedestal to be honest, or arrogant enough to feel that I deserve to think that my children should do so either. I am a moral compass to my children, all parents are, that is part of the responsibility of being a parent. But so is humility, and the awareness that they are going to teach you as much as you will teach them.

Naughty is a very lazy word because it replaces the whole paragraphs that your children deserve to hear. There is less value to using the word naughty, than explaining to your child what it is that you don’t agree with and allowing them to understand why. If Alfie launches his plate in the middle of a crowded restaurant one lunchtime what is more useful to him? For me to tell him he’s naughty or for me to explain to him that it’s OK that he’s tired, and doesn’t like his lunch and doesn’t want it sitting in front of him anymore, and that the way to deal with that is to hand me his plate rather than delivering a spaghetti Frisbee to the table 5 doors over. It takes more time to do that, of course it does, but it’s the un-lazy way to parent. It is also slightly uncomfortable for me because it means I need to acknowledge that it’s my fault that we didn’t sit down to lunch early enough and that I allowed him to get frustrated and tired and that I chose a meal he didn’t want, but then why shouldn’t I feel uncomfortable when I get things wrong?

I sometimes wonder if the fear that parents have is that those of us who remove the ‘old ways’ are happy to leave a vacuum in its place; that if I don’t tell my child he’s naughty it means I don’t try to implement discipline. Error. We discipline Alfie a lot, and we are 100% intolerant of malicious behaviour on the very rare occasion that his behaviour is actually malicious. Parenting Free From Naughty though is about looking more deeply, and it is surprising how rarely our son is genuinely in the wrong. He often gets over excited and plays too roughly, strokes the dog with precordial thumps, or tips his drink over himself just so he can shout “oooooh NO!” to us. Those things are frustrating as hell and require instant and calm intervention from us. They’re not naughty or malicious though, they are the first socialising steps of a young mind.

Is it more useful in the long term to nurture that mind to think about the consequences of actions, or to blindly accept the judgement I have made of them?

Those were my meandering thoughts as best as I can write them: I apologise for any errors in recounting them.

Did I mention my child woke me up at 4AM????

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  1. I never quite realised until reading this quite how furious the word 'naughty' used by my mother makes me. Naughty as in mischievous, used by other people, is fine. Naughty as a blanket term for 'you are doing a thing I don't like' or 'your behaviour is wrong in some way but it's not my fault or responsibility' makes me want to set things on fire.

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