In the UK, a slew of “mum-bashing” headlines have been making their appearance. In his new book, How Not To F*** Them Up (£8.99/$18.29, www.amazon.co.uk), Oliver James — the renowned clinical psychologist, author and broadcaster — insists: “When used on young children, the naughty step often results in repetition of the undesirable behaviour rather than successful management,” he says.
“If you’re not careful, you are just creating a guaranteed way for your toddler to wind you up.” He goes on to compare the naughty step to training a child “like a dog in a laboratory” and makes the point that “if your children are bad, it’s actually always your fault”.
Supernanny Jo Frost popularised the naughty step. The process works this way: When a child displays any kind of unacceptable behaviour — say, biting — she is given a warning.
If the behaviour continues, she is removed from the situation, told the reason why this is happening and placed on the naughty step or corner — a place designated in the house. She remains there, and is ignored, for a recommended one minute for each year of her age.
Before being allowed to leave, she has to apologise for her behaviour. Finally, she’s given a kiss and cuddle by her mummy or daddy.
“The naughty step is far preferable to the old-fashioned approach of a smacked bottom,” says nurse Alison Scott-Wright, author of The Sensational Baby Sleep Plan. “It’s a continuation of the idea of ‘time-out’ devised by childcare guru Penelope Leach as an acceptable alternative to physical punishment.”
Time-out involves taking a tantrum-ing toddler out of a stressful situation to a quiet place such as her room, giving both herself and her parents a chance to calm down.
"The naughty step is a place of reflection where the child realises she’s done something wrong,” Frost says. “It also helps the parent calm down and remain in control. What does a clip round the ear solve? Nothing.”
An empty threat
Dr Amanda Gummer, a psychologist specialising in family childhood development and family dynamics, notes that when used appropriately, the naughty step can be very effective. “I had one with both my children from the ages of about 2 until 4,” she adds.
“But I’d say that only 30 per cent of the parents who use it do so correctly — firstly distracting their child, then warning her, then — crucially — placing her on the naughty step for one minute for every year of her life if the behaviour doesn’t change.”
Many parents, she says, threaten the naughty step but never follow through, which renders it useless.
Sim Swee May, 36, mum to Seraphina, 2, and Magdalene, 4, also approves, “It works for me. Magdalene’s behaviour was awful. She was always biting and hitting her younger sister — she got quite vicious. The naughty step turned all that around in a matter of days.”
However, to many parenting experts, the naughty step is neither sensitive nor successful. “All too often, the step is a form of lazy parenting,” psychologist Dr Sandra Wheatley says. “It should be possible to reason with a child.”
Scott-Wright chimes in, “The naughty step is counterproductive. Telling a child he or she is ‘naughty’ and using a ‘naughty’ step as punishment for bad behaviour puts a negative label on that child. Psychologically, the child might feel, ‘If I’m naughty, that makes me bad’, which can lower self-esteem and actually perpetuate the inappropriate behaviour.”
So what, then, is an acceptable way of disciplining your toddler? Especially since mums in comfortable Singapore are often made to wonder if they’re over-indulging their offspring these days.
In psychologist Aric Sigman’s book, The Spoilt Generation, he claims nursery-aged children are becoming increasingly violent, thanks to parents being totally unable to set boundaries.
“Children of the spoilt generation are used to having their demands met by their parents and others in authority, and that, in turn, makes them unprepared for the realities of adult life,” Sigman says. “When parents do manage to whisper or mutter the word ‘no’, it doesn’t sound emphatic. It is delivered as an apology.
“I’ve yet to come across a parent who doesn’t agree that children need boundaries,” he adds. “However, there seems to be an enormous gap between our belief in the idea of these boundaries and actually constructing them.”
According to Dr Miriam Stoppard, author of Complete Baby and Childcare (£17.99, www.amazon.co.uk), the secret to good discipline is all about finding a balance. “Laying down the law, ruling by fear, being heavy on criticism and light on affection doesn’t get the best out of kids,” she says. “But that doesn’t always mean you have to be a pushover, either.
“Research shows that authoritative (but not authoritarian) parents who show lots of warmth and sensitivity end up with the most competent and well-adjusted children.”
Other experts point to the importance of “intuitive parenting”. “Mums and dads need to trust their instincts of what’s right and wrong,” says Frank Furedi, sociology professor at the University of Kent, UK, and author of Paranoid Parenting.
“Parenting is now an industry. It’s no longer about the relationship with your children — it’s something for professionals to have an opinion about. We keep sending out very negative messages about parenting, which has the perverse effect of discouraging parents. We need to chill out.”
Disciplining your child is never fun, but it’s a necessary evil, and for many of us, some version of the naughty step will remain on the agenda for a while yet.