Blog#22: Naughtiness doesn’t exist

I wrote this blog about my dislike of the word ‘naughty’ in 2021. It popped into my mind in recent weeks when a certain high-profile self-proclaimed ‘supernanny’ decided to share her thoughts on naughtiness, and how we now prefer to ‘label’ our kids rather than admit they are just naughty.

Ok, I’m just going to say it. I don’t believe in the existence of a behaviour called ‘naughtiness’.

I’ve given this a lot of thought over the past few years and my thoughts are not restricted to neurodivergent children. I believe it to be true for ALL children.

Ok, let’s start with what IS naughtiness? It would appear that in our society, the definition of naughtiness is so-called bad behaviour exhibited by a child or young person to challenge parents, test their patience, push boundaries, get their own way, create chaos, cause conflict with siblings etc. We’ve all seen this behaviour which first irritates, then escalates, sometimes confounds and can push us to the very limits of our tolerance.

The concept of naughtiness starts when our babies become toddlers and continues right the way through to the challenging teenage years, where it gets renamed along the way to defiant, disobedient, headstrong, badly behaved…etc. But why do we never talk about naughtiness as a behaviour exhibited by adults? Does it suddenly stop existing? Or do we offer adults more time, patience and understanding and give their behaviour different reasons:

“Oh, she’s having a bad day, bless her.”

“He’s just like that, he’s always been a demanding boss.”

“She likes things done HER way, that’s just the way she is’.

“He just lost his temper, and he’s sorry now.”

You get the gist. We allow adults the space to have bad days; we accept that it’s part of life and not everyone can be on top-form all the time. Do we allow this of our children as they are growing up? Crucially, with adults, we tend to recognise that there are reasons behind negative behaviours and we may choose to understand or forgive these behaviours based on our knowledge of what that particular adult is going through.

But going back to childhood naughtiness and the behaviours associated with it. If you spend a lot of time reading and researching neurodivergency in children, if you have an autistic child for example, you may often see very extreme behaviours in them, which to the outside world absolutely look like traditional forms of naughtiness. But because of your knowledge about your child’s neurotype, and an understanding of situations where it may be incredibly hard for them to cope, you gradually stop using worlds like naughty. Naughty doesn’t MEAN anything when you get close and look into the world. It’s just a go-to phrase for an undesirable behaviour. It tells us NOTHING about what the child is experiencing, feeling, asking for, upset about…nothing. Using the word naughty frames the child’s actions in a negative light, prevents us from understanding them and makes the assumption that the behaviour is somehow intended and controllable.

When I first read the phrase ‘all behaviour is communication’ I sort of winced, as it sounded a bit airy-fairy. But the more I have looked into JJ’s behaviour in order to try and minimise his meltdowns, find his triggers and relieve his anxiety – the more the phrase couldn’t be any more true. If it wasn’t for JJ: his presence, articulation and my growing understanding of his neurotype, then I would not be as aware as I am of how potentially damaging writing off behaviour as naughtiness can be. Every negative behaviour JJ displays is signposting me to an unmet need, a potential trigger, an overwhelming emotional reaction he is unable to deal with. I can honestly say that JJ – and I would hazard a guess that it the same for all children – does not display negative behaviours just for fun, or for the sake of it, or to be cruel, or to hurt others. There is ALWAYS a reason. I don’t always get to the reason in time, I sometimes have to make my best guess, but trust me – there’s always a reason.

Parenting a ND child makes you re-think everything, as often there is a period pre-diagnosis where everyone in the family is struggling. Blaming your own parenting methods is a natural step many parents go through, until they come to find that it’s neurology and an ableist world that are clashing and causing the negative behaviours. But you don’t need to have an ND child to change your views on so-called naughtiness. Taking a deep-dive into your child’s world, exploring their likes/dislikes/loves/triggers/anxieties can only bring you closer to their perspective and give you an alternative view of their behaviour. Stopping writing off their behaviour as naughtiness leads you to a deeper understanding, could lead to an improved relationship with them and will undoubtedly make your child feel understood, happier and more secure.

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