Creative Child

Reframing the Naughty List

by Rebecca Eanes

He’s making a list. He’s checking it twice. He’s gonna find out who's naughty or nice.

Santa Claus doesn’t understand child development. 

For nearly 100 years, we’ve been using the same practices of behaviorism - punish bad behavior and reward good behavior. This came about based on the idea that all behaviors are based on simple stimulus-response reactions. Thanks to advances in neuroscience, we now understand that behavior is much more complex and involves internal factors that cannot be punished away.  nem kurutma

A child’s thoughts, emotions, experiences, and sensations affect behavior. Trauma, anxiety, sensory processing disorder, and a slew of other brain and body differences also contribute. We now understand that behavior isn’t simply naughty or nice, but a clue to the complex internal world of the human being. To understand behavior, we have to look beyond the action itself, to the root. We must take into account the child’s experiences, temperament, conditions, environment, and emotions. Sometimes the behavior is an autonomic response to the nervous system’s perception of threat. Neurodiverse children require different solutions than neurotypical children do. The key point is that all children are unique, and the one-size-fits-all behaviorism solutions are outdated and ineffective. 

The dichotomy of punishments and rewards - naughty and nice - does not help children do better. Threatening to “tell Santa” only trips more alarms in the brain. Likewise, threats to “cancel Christmas” or get nothing but a lump of coal only serve to make children feel worthless. If better behavior results, it is but a temporary and desperate attempt by the child to control a brain that is not yet developed enough to comply. 

The naughty list doesn’t take into account all the reasons children are “naughty.” Annette Breaux said, “Nine times out of ten, the story behind the misbehavior won’t make you angry; it will break your heart.” Children who are acting out are often struggling. They are calling out for help. The question is, how are we going to anwer? 

Reasons Kids are “Naughty”

As I stated earlier, behavior is complex. It isn’t always easy to discern what is causing a behavior, but it is worthwhile to get curious and try to find the root cause. Dr. Gordon Neufled says, “Most problem behavior is rooted in instinct and emotion.” 

Even if you never figure out the exact problem, you are now looking at this child through a different lens. Rather than seeing “bad,” you begin to see “troubled” and you will react quite differently to a troubled child. 

Here are 10 common reasons for misbehavior.

  1. Trying to get a need met. 
  2. Feeling disconnected from caregivers.
  3. Imitating others.
  4. Emotional distress.
  5. Sensory and other physical challenges.
  6. Stress.
  7. Perceived threats, possibly subconscious.
  8. Attention seeking.
  9. Trauma.
  10. Grief.

As you can see, the cause for “naughty” behavior is not something that needs to be punished, but something that needs to be healed.  

Reframing the Naughty List

So let’s change the name of the naughty list and see how it changes our perceptions.

“Dysregulated list.”

“Traumatized list.”

“Struggling list.”

“Anxious list.”

“Grieving list.”

“Stressed list.”

Do these children deserve coal? Or do they deserve love? 

When we change the way we see children, we change our responses to them. While we want to punish naughty kids, we want to help anxious, stressed, traumatized, grieving, dysregulated children. We want to heal them. 

All children are good. Some are just having a hard time. Let’s not make it harder by labeling and threatening. If you want to help a child get off the “naughty” list, see the reason behind the behavior and help them heal.

Rebecca Eanes is the bestselling author of multiple books including Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide, The Positive Parenting Workbook, and The Gift of a Happy Mother. She is the grateful mom of two boys. 


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