In Which I Reclaim the Word "Naughty," Because I Need It

by | Aug 14, 2014 | Parenting, Things I Think | 30 comments

They have taken the word “naughty.” They have taken it and made it about ridiculous Halloween costumes. It’s gone so far that it feels off somehow for upstanding citizens to even say the word. It did for me, anyway.

It seems like “bad” is the word most commonly substituted for “naughty.” But BAD is a much bigger word. “Bad” seems like something you ARE down deep. Bad is the opposite of good. I don’t want to tell my children that they are “bad.” I don’t think they are.

What they ARE is naughty.

Naughty means unthinking. Naughty means unable to
control one’s impulses of the moment. Naughty means giving in to one’s
less noble inclinations. And being careless with your mittens, and so forfeiting your pie.

Our vintage Little Golden Books are full of children and anthropomorphic animals being naughty and being labeled as such. The Three Little Kittens, and Peter Rabbit, and the Poky Little Puppy aren’t BAD, but they ARE sometimes forgetful, and disobedient, and tardy. Just like my kids are. (Just like I am.)

My kids love reading about naughty. They gasp, wide-eyed, as Peter Rabbit goes down to Mr. McGregor’s farm. Again. Even though his mom specifically said not to. They cringe as he suffers all the natural consequences of his naughtiness. And they understand it in a way *I* never did.

Naughtiness has its inevitable consequences. Sometimes it’s no chocolate custard, sometimes it’s a tummy ache. But my kids understand that, as easy as it is to be naughty, it’s just as easy to be forgiven. If you wash up your mittens or patch that hole in the fence, you just might get to have dessert anyway.

Naughty is my child’s choice, or reaction, or impulse. It isn’t who he is. So I don’t say, “You’re a bad boy, go sit in the corner.” I say, “That was very naughty, go sit in the corner.”

It’s a small difference in words, but I think it makes an important difference in perception. There is enough naughtiness to go around in our house, and there is corner sitting and desserts are lost. But I want my kids — even Cranky Frankie, who does the most corner-sitting of all — to understand that they are made in the image and likeness of God, that they are redeemed, that they are GOOD. I want them to believe that they can strive to do better each day. And that no amount of naughtiness can change the fact that they are loved.

So, it took some getting used to for me, but “naughty” is a part of my everyday vocabulary. Halloween can have the word “sexy” for its Big Bird and hamburger and corn costumes. But Santa and I are going to need the word “naughty” back.


  1. Catie

    Yes! I always felt that telling my child he was bad just wasn't right. I try to say he had bad behavior, but I think I will use naughty. I also use the word disobedient a lot, but don't like it too much either. It makes me feel like the dictator and the children are my subjects.

  2. Hafsa

    I feel the same way. I prefer the word naughty to the word bad because telling my kids they're bad feels so harsh to me. And this family are big fans of the Little Golden books, one of my husband's favorite books as a little boy was Poky the Little Puppy and the next generation are fans of it as well.

  3. Anonymous

    So glad we aren't the only ones to use naughty! Just don't let your toddler say that "papa went to the library to get naughty books" because, well, it sounds a little bad!

  4. Amanda

    I love using the word "naughty" for the exact same reasons! My daughter was always told by her birthparents she was "bad" and that's certainly not what I want her to feel. But then her school always told her everything she did was wonderful and just who she is and she never did anything wrong. And I don't exactly want to say that either. So "that was naughty" is exactly how I have been compromising. I vote we all make it a point to bring back the proper use of the word naughty 🙂

    Catie, I feel the same way about disobedient! I used to say "you were disobeying mommy" which is true I suppose but like you it felt too dictator-ish. I like naughty, it can be used for all sorts of innocent or not-so-innocent mischief.

    • annemcd

      Yes! I always feel like I should be speaking with a German accent (sorry to any German readers!) when I'm on my kids' cases about being disobedient. Naughty makes so much more sense to describe what they are doing. Once again, looks like our parents got it right 😉

    • Kendra

      Same here. And "disobedient" is relative. It's dependent on ME and what I've said. Whereas "naughty" seems more absolute. There are things that are universally naughty.

  5. Micaela Darr

    Very interesting take, Kendra. I also think it's important to keep the focus on what *they do* as opposed to *who they are.* We all have intrinsic dignity, regardless of how we behave. I see you made that distinction too, when you said "that was naughty" instead of "you are naughty."

    • Amelia Bentrup

      I agree with this. I think it's every important to make the distinction between what children do and who they are. We use a variety of different words to describe "naughty" actions "bad, naughty, careless, disobediant, impulsive, sloppy, destructive, dishonest, mean,, etc., etc." We try very hard to never say a person is "x" but rather that the action was "x". but I do try to be as descriptive as possible. For example, if a chid lies…we would say "you were being dishonest". If they are careless with their library books, we would say "you were being careless with your library books." If they are mean to a sibling we would say "you are being mean to your sister" I don't know, for some reason describing the action seems to give more of an "impression" of why it's wrong, or at least I think it does.

    • Jennifer S.

      Yes to Kendra and yes to both of you! I cringe when people refer to their kids or even animals as bad. Perhaps the behavior was bad, but that is not the same as the person or animal being bad. I think it is critical to a child's sense of worth that the focus is always on the behavior or the choices rather than labeling the child as a person.

  6. Amy @ Motherhood and Miscellany

    Yes! We use the word naughty too, to describe behavior. I hadn't ever thought of it as weird in relation to the "naughty" Halloween costumes. I didn't even understand the meaning of your post's title until I read the whole thing! Haha! Yes, "naughty" should not (and does not in my mind) mean "sexy." Naughty Nem-Oh?! Ew. And those sexy costumes in the last link?? So ridiculously bad!

    • Kendra

      That's a beautiful thing, Amy. I hope my kids will have the correct definition filed first in their brains too. After I wrote this, I did wonder if I'm just the public schooled weirdo and this isn't a problem for anyone else!

    • Amy @ Motherhood and Miscellany

      Haha! I guess I'm a public-schooled weirdo too, I just didn't catch that one. Now I'm noticing it everywhere. I was looking for a costume today for a Labor Day party, and I can't believe how many of the women's costumes are "naughty" versions of something not sexy (Alice in Wonderland, Rainbow Brite, Strawberry Shortcake, etc.).

    • Kendra

      Yeah, I don't even know what to do with this phenomenon. I want to shout at all these girls: You already have it. Everything he wants, you already have it. YOU don't need to dress it up like a sexy hamburger. Look at peacocks: the males are the ones with the ridiculous outfits. Peahens are just going about their business, with no crazy outfits, waiting for the boys to impress them.

  7. Christine

    I also tell my children they are "being naughty." That, or "making trouble" which is pretty similar.

  8. Emily

    I use naughty, too, for the same reason you do. I feel it is a much deeper condemnation of a child to tell him he's "been BAD" as opposed to "been naughty". My son Henry, 3, is curious and naughty, but he's a good boy. He just forgets (or chooses to ignore) the rules. That's naughty, but it's not bad. My husband has taken up usage of the word from me after I explained why I use it, but he still teases me sometimes by repeating suggestively, "Nau-tay" when I tell him a child's in trouble. Men.

    We read Peter Rabbit at least once a week and my children are consistently appalled at how disobedient Peter is. They always say he deserves to be made into a pie. 😛

  9. Amanda

    I totally agree!

    Also, while I want to be Mother Cottontail Rabbit, I DON'T want to be the Poky Little Puppy's mom. My goodness, that woman needs to get her discipline organized.

  10. Anonymous

    I am having a similar problem with the word bold! My grandmother used to use it as a catch-all for when we were being sassy/rude/disrespectful (I think it's an Irish thing?) but a lot of people use it as a good thing, so its been hard for me to use it the way I want to, ie: telling a sassy toddler "Don't be bold" or "That was bold". I like the term and I don't want to lose it!

  11. tina hensley

    I use "naughty" myself. Always have. Never quite understood why calling a child "bad" felt so bad to me. It makes sense now.

  12. Anonymous

    One time I told my 3 year old he was bad (in one of those really frustrating broken mom moments). His eyes instantly welled up with tears and he began crying, "No Mommy! I'm not bad! I'm not!" Of course, now I only remember that reaction and not what prompted me to say he was bad in the first place. I'm not always going to base my parenting on how my kids react, but that one stopped me in my tracks for sure. I like this. I think I will do my part to reclaim "naughty," which we've seen in a few of these same books!

  13. October Rose

    My husband and I have a disagreement about this. He uses "bad," I use "naughty," for the reasons you've listed. My toddler likes to gleefully shout "Bad!!" when he or a baby gets told no … Sigh.

    • Kendra

      That's tough. But, like others have pointed out, as long as you both focus on the behavior being bad, rather than the person, it's not the end of the world. The word naughty might just have too much baggage for your husband to be comfortable using it.

  14. Along Came Mary

    Hey Kendra! I'm having much trouble with the comments box here, can you see this comment, I hope?? 🙂 Just wanted to say Hi from SITS & that I love your weekly Q&A linky 🙂 I will partake this weekend & look forward to reading everyone elses 🙂

    • Kendra

      Thanks! Sorry for your trouble and I look forward to reading your link up!

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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