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Is 'The Naughty Step' discipline technique a quick fix?

The Naughty Step discipline technique has been widely adopted by parents – largely because it works. But is it merely a quick fix?
Supernanny Jo Frost, standing with a family. She introduced the Naughty Step to parents. Jean Whiteside / ABC via Getty Images.
Supernanny Jo Frost, standing with a family. She introduced the Naughty Step to parents. Jean Whiteside / ABC via Getty Images.

The Naughty Step is a technique that has been accepted almost unequivocally, and indeed globally, by today's generation of parents. But is it as good as it seems? It is certainly effective, but recent thinking suggests it might not be beneficial for our children in the long-term.

The television childcare expert Supernanny (also known as Jo Frost) is the primary advocate of the Naughty Step as a means of punishment. On the Supernanny website the advice reads: "When your child misbehaves explain what she's done wrong, tell her that her behaviour is unacceptable, and warn her that if she behaves in the same way again she'll be put on the Naughty Step. Make sure your voice remains calm, not angry, and use a low, authoritative tone."

If your child misbehaves again, parents are advised to put the child straight on to the Naughty Step. "Explain clearly why she is there and how long she must stay there (one minute per year of her age). If she comes off the Naughty Step, put her back on using gentle but firm movements and keep putting her back on to the step until she realises that you're committed to keeping her there for the agreed time."

Supernanny's Naughty Step technique has been broadcast in 47 countries since the programme launched in 2004. Her approach has been widely adopted by parents – largely because it works. However, some childcare experts argue the Supernanny approach is merely a quick fix, which could cause problems in the long-term.

"The point is enforcement and order, not teaching and reflection," says the parenting author and lecturer Alfie Kohn, commenting on the use of the Naughty Step when a child lashes out. "Rather than helping a child to think about the effects of his aggression on others, he is simply informed that hitting is 'unacceptable'; reasons and morality don't enter into it."

While not denying that the Naughty Step gets results, Carmen Benton, a parenting educator at LifeWorks Counselling and Development, Dubai (www.lifeworksdubai.com), takes Kohn's argument further: "The Naughty Step is a short-term parenting technique which is based on control. A child who is sent to the Naughty Step for hitting his sister is unlikely to be sitting there by himself thinking, 'I can't believe I did that, my poor sister, I will never do that again'. He is more likely to be thinking, 'I know my parents love my sister more than me. Now I really hate my sister and when I get off this step I'm going to get her for this when they're not looking'."

More worrying than a child stewing over how to seek revenge on a sibling is the effect the Naughty Step may have on a parent's relationship with their child.

"Time out is a form of love withdrawal and control over children," says Benton. "It is disrespectful to children, the basis of it is to grind them into submission. The long-term effect will be that over time you will be eroding their sense of self and their relationship with you. They learn to fear you, or become sneaky and do things behind your back for fear of punishment. They learn what it feels like to be controlled and how to control others smaller than them."

While it might come as a shock to discover the potential long-term effects of the Naughty Step, in present-time, when your four-year-old has drawn over the walls, you're livid and she's definitely old enough to know better, what should you do?

"Positive Time Out" is one option – this is when you let your child choose where she would like to go to have some time out and cool off. Depending on the situation, you could consider staying with her while she's calming down. For young children, distraction is a good option until they are old enough to learn to respect and cooperate with others. Finally, it's always worth trying to address the root cause of your child's misbehaviour – this is the best way to prevent it from happening again.

Perhaps surprisingly, many parenting experts disagree with punishment altogether. "The alternative is to teach children how to 'be good'," says Benton. "If a child has hit his sister, he needs to understand the consequence of his actions and try to amend that. He needs to be taught about his feelings of anger and frustration and how to cope with them in appropriate ways. Children do better when they feel better. Putting a child in time out will only make them feel worse."

Even the British childcare expert Gina Ford, who has been criticised for her strict methods, isn't a fan of punishment. "My preferred approach has always been to positively reinforce the good behaviour, not highlight the bad," she says. Ford dislikes the word "naughty" and believes children respond far more effectively and quickly when they are praised and encouraged. The best kind of praise is descriptive: "Thank you for asking to leave the table, what lovely manners you have."

Benton, Kohn and Ford aren't alone in their thinking and even the producers of Supernanny have noticed the tide is turning. After a dispute over salary, Frost has been replaced by a new nanny, Deborah Tilman, who adopts a more kindly approach to misbehaving children.

"In terms of discipline, I use the Calm Down Corner and not the Naughty Chair because we're not calling children names or talking about negative things," says Tilman. This is a quite a departure from the methods parents have been fed for the past seven years and might come as a surprise to those who have adopted them without question.

So, as parenting philosophies evolve, it might be time to ban the Naughty Step in 2012 and attempt a more loving approach. Raising a child was never going to be a quick job and with 18 years to completion, there's plenty of time to get your technique right and end up with a respectable member of society at the end of it. At least you've reclaimed the bottom step of the stairs in the meantime.



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Updated: January 31, 2012 04:00 AM

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