Was Supernanny wrong? How should we discipline our tots?

You’ve seen the reality show Supernanny, and the “naughty step” is used by many parents. But new perspectives suggest this popular mode of discipline might do more harm than good.


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.”