Before I write this column, journalistic ethics require that I make two disclosures of personal experience:
My first-grade teacher washed my mouth out with soap once. She took me into the bathroom, made me chew on a bar of Ivory or something, then brought me back out into the hall, where the rest of the class was waiting, and made me apologize. I had no idea why what I said was wrong, but I apologized because in 1953, when a Catholic nun told you to do something, you did it.
I like hot sauce. I use it liberally, even on meat loaf, and I have tried some of the hottest hot sauces made, including those made with habenero and scotch bonnet peppers, which according to the Scoville Scale (Google it!) are the hottest of the hot. I once engaged in a hot pepper eating contest with another fool. That attempt at Latin macho resulted in significant indigestion, offset by a rather mellow endorphin high. I'd do it again, because I have an addictive personality, and I'm proud of it.
Now, onto the reason for this column: Of late, reporters have peppered me with questions about parents who, in response to "bad words" and "talking back," wash their children's mouths out with soap or put a drop or two of hot sauce on their tongues. They ask: Do you recommend it? Is it abusive? Does it work? What kind of soap/hot sauce should a parent use, and how much?
Let's take the questions in order. First, I don't recommend either of these practices. As regards children who use inappropriate language or speak disrespectfully to adults, I have recommended having the child in question write sentences and/or a letter of apology to the offendee, confining the child to his/her room, taking away a highly coveted privilege for a memorable period of time, having the child stand on a public corner wearing a sandwich board that reads "I use bad language" (NO! I'M JUST KIDDING!), and the like.
Despite my unwillingness to endorse either washing the mouth with soap or hot-saucing, they do not move me to outrage, nor am I able to find evidence that they are abusive per se. Some pediatricians warn that hot saucing can cause swelling of sensitive mouth tissue and possibly trigger previously unknown allergies. I won't argue with this, but I was unable to locate any substantiating clinical reports, which doesn't mean they're not out there, but only that the potential risks are probably quite low.
An emergency room physician I spoke with says he has never, in 20 years, treated a child for either a reaction to hot sauce on the tongue or soap in the mouth, but he concedes that the occasional child might have an idiosyncratic reaction. I would simply hope that the parent of a child who does have a physical reaction would not use the technique in question again.
As for hot-saucing, check the Scoville Scale before doing so and use a sauce that is discomforting, but probably not painful -- a Jalapeno-based sauce perhaps. In any case, try it on yourself and your spouse before using it on your child. Needless to say, if either of you have a negative physical reaction, it's a safe bet your child will as well.
A pediatrician friend of mine recommends that parents who want to try soap-in-the-mouth use a mild facial soap rather than a relatively harsh deodorant bath soap. "Less chemicals, less risk," he said, but he's never heard of a child having a physical reaction to any kind of soap.
Do they work? As one might imagine, social scientists have not researched this question; therefore, anecdotal reports will have to suffice. Concerning both soap-in-the-mouth and hot-saucing, the preponderance of self-reports suggest they are moderately effective, but certainly not reliable. The difference seems to be one of age -- the younger the child, the more likely it is that the soap or hot sauce will deter future verbal offenses of the same sort. But then, the earlier one uses any form of discipline, the more likely it is that the discipline will "nip" the problem "in the bud."
I've heard many a parent say they've tried using hot sauce to stop thumb-sucking, but not one has reported that it's worked. Some children even seem to like it.
John Rosemond is a family psychologist. Questions of general interest may be sent to him at Affirmative Parenting, 1020 East 86th St., Suite 26B, Indianapolis, Ind. 46240 and at his Web site: www.rosemond.com.