Whenever anyone from US hears me say "cheeky" to (or about) my kids, they always ask what it means. When I try to explain, they suggest "mischievous", but apparently it has more negative connotation than the "cheeky" I mean (the best I can explain it is mischievous, but cute about it). When I mean it negatively I use "naughty", not "cheeky". So, is there a better definition, or am I using it wrong?
Your usage of cheeky is perfectly correct. The NOAD definition aptly captures your intended meaning:
impudent or irreverent, typically in an endearing or amusing way
Unfortunately, this word is not too common among American speakers. It may be that a cultural difference accounts for the fact (my conjecture) that American speakers are more likely to use adjectives (or adjectival phrases) that are more specific than cheeky to describe their children's behavior. For instance, you might hear:
- Little Johnny's such a piece of work.
- Amy's quite a character.
- Our five-year-old's got some real spunk.
- What a zesty little chipmunk!
- Jimmy always seems to have a will of his own.
As for a better alternative to cheeky, I do not think there is one, except you want to go for either of the following:
Impudent — a more formal synonym that would rarely be used in casual conversation.
Sassy — a more informal synonym, but I doubt that parents would use this to describe their kids; it is more common among friends, and for some reasons, more feminine than masculine.
Finally, I would say that mischievous does not always have a negative connotation. It has two degrees of meaning, one which is much more negative than the other. I quote the relevant NOAD definition:
(of a person, animal, or their behavior) causing or showing a fondness for causing trouble in a playful way
It clearly isn't a direct synonym of cheeky, but it could work very well for related behavioral descriptions. And I daresay mischievous is way more popular than cheeky in conversations among American parents.
Another Aussie here — I use cheeky quite a lot in the following example situations.
- I walk into the bathroom when my girlfriend is having a shower and she flicks water over me. I respond "oh you cheeky brat".
- A friend pinches my seat at the pub and I respond "you cheeky bugger".
In both those the cheeky has an upward tone and the word following is fairly flat.
Obviously in both situations the person is doing something only slightly naughty or mischevious.
I also think it could be used the same as "are you giving me lip?" in other situations where back chatting is what's occurring. I introduced the word to a friend in France who now delights in calling his 10-year old daughter a cheeky monkey, and she is the definition of it!