Inspired by this question: Should our 3 year old boy be made to look at me while I am talking (during discipline)?

In this question, the word "naughty" is repeatedly used to describe a child.

I would actually like to take this question beyond the scope of just the word naughty, and ask:

Is it detrimental to the development of a child's self-identity to label the child with adjectives, versus labeling the child's behavior.

Negative example: "You're being naughty." vs. "What you're doing is not okay."
Positive example: "You're a good boy." vs "You're behaving very nicely."
Ambiguous example: "You're silly." vs. "That's a silly thing to say."

  • Is there a reason why this was downvoted? Please let me know if you feel I should edit my question.
    – user11394
    Commented Nov 15, 2014 at 5:10
  • 1
    i) This is a leading question, and does not appear to be open to contradictory views even if they are supported by evidence. "Here's what I think, cherry pick the evidence to prove me right". ii) the actual question is buried under all the supporting text. Split that out so you have a short, open, question and an answer.
    – DanBeale
    Commented Nov 15, 2014 at 9:50
  • It sounds like you're from the U.K., so language usage may vary. Perhaps you're interpreting naughty to be equivalent to they way bad is used here in the U.S. To my ear, naughty is clearly tied to behavior. A child can't be inherently naughty, because naughty implies behavior.
    – Marc
    Commented Nov 15, 2014 at 15:54
  • @DanBeale I removed what I believe to be the offending text. I wouldn't include any of what I wrote as an answer, at this point, because I've done little research on the issue. As I search, I'm finding more stuff about the wording of praise (or not praising at all), but nothing that extends those concepts to discouraging negative behavior. To Marc: Nope, I'm from the US. I think naughty has a lot of connotations, but it's not the only word I'm wondering about.
    – user11394
    Commented Nov 15, 2014 at 16:31

2 Answers 2


I'm going to concentrate on the question in the title.

I cringe a bit when I hear people say "have you been good?" or "be a good boy for your mummy". It's the same thing.

So is it helpful to call a child "naughty" or "good"?

  • How is it helpful?
  • What will it achieve?
  • Isn't it superfluous anyway?

For younger children in particular, I think the concept is far too complicated and completely ambiguous. It's useless for behaviour management because it contains no actual instruction and at best conveys a feeling. This feeling will be anger or disappointment from the parent, and perhaps shame or confusion in the child.

Being told to "be good" can't cause anything but minor confusion and anxiety, because how is a child supposed to know what you mean by good?

Relying on "good" or "naughty" is an unsophisticated, even lazy, way of parenting and interacting with children. Good communication requires specific instructions and clear requests.

For example, a child hits another.

  • No. We don't do that.
  • No. That's naughty!

It's fairly obvious to me that the second one doesn't mean anything useful.


The answer, in short, is yes and no and it depends on the child & usage.


This pertains not only to children, but to all people. When we make a statement about a behavior or a characteristic and attribute that to the person, then if it is done so repeatedly, whether by the same person or separate people individually, there are 2 scenarios (generally-speaking);

  1. The person will reflect on the statements or otherwise internalize them, begin believing them, and then adopt them as a component of self-identity.

    In this case, negative statements can be quite harmful while positive statements can be quite helpful.

  2. The person generally disregards the views of others or for whatever reason disregards a particular label.

    In this case, it isn't harmful to the recipient, per se, but quite often will result in them creating a view of those who make such statements (very often as friend or foe). Most of the time I see this as taking place subconsciously as opposed to an overt decision.

When, however, in the case of behavior-related statements, they are made more precisely as describing the behavior, such concern is lessened, though not always eliminated since they may be heard differently than they are said (most especially when speaking about children).

Characteristics, though, are not as you have in your "positive example." That is, calling someone good is not the same as saying that their behavior is good. A good person is someone who replicates the desired behaviors consistently, not as the one-time event suggested by identifying a single positive behavior.

For many generations, both phraseologies have been used by people throughout various cultures and we don't see (or at least I have not) stories or news articles about bad people where the sole cause was that their parents called them something when they were a child, so I don't see this as a cataclysmic concern. It is one worth noting, however, (hence the +1) to help ensure we are the best parents we can be.

  • The part about stories about bad people would be an instance of others identifying an individual. I'm not sold that it relates to older children and adults with self-esteem issues (self-identity). Also, I agree that calling someone good isn't the same as calling a certain behavior good, but I don't often see the two separated in practice. That is, a child does something nice and the parent/relative responds with "You're such a good boy/girl!" How would you address such a practice, when the praise clearly corresponds to a single event, not necessarily their actions on a whole?
    – user11394
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 17:23
  • Far too long for me to provide a response. I suggest reading "How to Win Friends & Influence People". Dale Carnegie does a much better job of "selling" the idea than I can ever hope to achieve. Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 18:06
  • >CreationEdge "How would you address such a practice, when the praise clearly corresponds to a single event, not necessarily their actions on a whole?" How about "Good job!" or "Nice work. Can I take this to work and hang it in my office?" or "Thanks for helping us pick up the house. It makes it so much nicer for all of us."
    – Marc
    Commented Nov 22, 2014 at 16:58

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