Scaring or scarring: Does the Boogeyman really work for disciplining a child?


Disciplining children these days may have taken a gentler turn, but one thing that hasn't changed is the use of the Boogeyman, a tool used the world over to induce good behaviour in children. 

Their imaginations are so vivid that it's a little cruel, but nearly every country and culture has created its own version. 

In the South American communities it's known as El Coco, in Japan it's called the Namahage, and at home, some South Africans refer to it as the Tokoloshe (or Tikoloshe) and others as Antjie Somers. 

What were you told about the Boogeyman, tikoloshe or Antjie Somers as a child? Do you use it now as a way to discipline your child? Tell us by emailing to and we could publish your letter. Do let us know if you'd like to stay anonymous.  

Regardless of the country or physical description, the legend remains the same: a frightful creature who threatens to kidnap and devour naughty, crying, lazy children. 

The word "Boogeyman" is taken from the Middle English word for hobgoblin, "bogge", but the exact origin of the Boogeyman myth remains unknown due to it being such a globally shared idea. 

Does it really work? 

The notion of scaring someone straight is a popular one, but does constantly threatening little kids with the Boogeyman really work for discipline?  

Researchers at the Purdue University see fear as having its place in the healthy development of a child. 

"Children need to learn that there are things to be afraid of, such as traffic on busy streets or hot stoves. Too much fear and too little fear are both problems for children. A child with too much fear may be afraid to participate in normal activities. A child with too little fear may take too many chances and get hurt." 

Despite the positives aspects of a healthy dose of fear in childhood, Purdue University researchers say that using it as a disciplinary measure isn't very useful. 

"Some parents try to scare children into following rules. It is not a very effective way to control children's behaviour. Fear uses the lower levels of the brain, so children do not learn to think when parents use fear. Using fear in discipline can make children more afraid of other things. When they are often scared, their brains learn to be scared more quickly." 

What to do instead 

Valya Telep, a child development specialist from Virginia State University, explains that no matter how many times a child is physically punished (which is illegal in SA), it does not help the child develop a conscience. "Effective discipline helps children learn to control their behaviour so that they act according to their ideas of what is right and wrong, not because they fear punishment."  

Instead, the writer suggests using consequence as discipline to the usual nagging or scolding, allowing a child (within reason) to choose a course of action and to experience the consequences of their choice. 

"Parents are so used to telling children what to do that it is very difficult to sit back and let the child experience the consequences of his actions. The effort is well worth it, however, because you are sending a powerful message to the child that says, "you are capable of thinking for yourself."

Here are some great Parent24 resources for alternative ways to discipline your child: 

Speaking gently: 20 things you should never say to your children by Jesse Jade Turner, Parent24

Words can be extremely damaging, and while we cannot always protect our children from the words they are exposed to in their surroundings, we can make sure the ones we use when speaking to them are nurturing, supportive and full of love.

5 alternatives to saying "no" to your children by Jesse Jade Turner, Parent24

Are you tired of constantly telling your child "no" only for them to continue being uncooperative? Give these simple tips a try!

10 top discipline tips by Sister Lilian, Parent24

Parenting expert Sister Lilian shares her golden guidelines for dealing with problem behaviour.

Is it possible to discipline your child without reward or punishment? by Rebecca English, Queensland University of Technology, The Conversation

Research shows that giving your child the scope to be self-directed is much more powerful than traditional notions of punishment or reward. But they do need limits, here's how.

How to deal with difficult behaviour in your children by Katrina Barker, Western Sydney University, The Conversation

To a certain degree, bad behaviour is normal but how can parents determine the difference between acting out, acting their age or something more serious? Here are a few tips and strategies for dealing with challenging behaviour in your children.

Five alternative discipline strategies that actually work by Melany Bendix, Your Baby magazine 

Positive parenting is hard work, but the pay-off could be immeasurable.

Discipline tricks to try today by Your Baby magazine 

Toddlers often have their parents feeling that they’re never going to be in control again. We show you how to take charge and see results. 

Read more: 

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