Feeling the Heat
Some Parents Apply Hot Sauce to a Child's Tongue as Punishment. The Practice Has Some Experts Burning
By Alison BuckholtzSpecial to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 10, 2004; Page HE01
Hot sauce adds a kick to salsa, barbeque, falafel and hundreds of other foods. But some parents use it in a different recipe, one they think will yield better-behaved children: They put a drop of the fiery liquid on a child's tongue as punishment for lying, biting, hitting or other offenses.
"Hot saucing," or "hot tongue," has roots in Southern culture, according to some advocates of the controversial disciplinary method, but it has spread throughout the country. Nobody keeps track of how many parents do it, but most experts contacted for this story, including pediatricians, psychologists and child welfare professionals, were familiar with it.
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The use of hot sauce has been advocated in a popular book, in a magazine for Christian women and on Internet sites. Web-based discussions on parenting carry intense, often emotional exchanges on the topic.
But parents aren't the only ones asking "to sauce or not to sauce?" Several state governments have gotten involved in the debate. In Michigan in 2002, a child care center was sanctioned for using hot sauce to discipline a child. The mother of the 18-month-old boy reportedly gave the child care workers permission to use the sauce to help dissuade her son from biting other children.
Virginia's child protective services agency lists hot saucing among disciplinary tactics it calls "bizarre behaviors." The list includes such methods as forcing a child to kneel on sharp gravel, and locking him in a closet.
As with spanking, hot saucing elicits strong reactions, even among friends and family members. When Kim Crosen's mother-in-law discovered that Crosen was using hot sauce on her 5-year-old son, she was shocked, said Crosen, a Fairfax mother of three. Because of the sensitivity of the subject, Crosen agreed to be interviewed for this story only on the condition that she be identified by her maiden name.
After Amanda DeLorme of American University Park posted a message recommending hot sauce to members of DC Urban Moms, a popular e-mail bulletin board, she recalls that she received several responses asking, "How can you do this to your child?"
Parents who use hot sauce say that such tactics as timeouts, lectures, negotiation or restricting certain pleasures have not worked. For them, hot sauce -- or even the threat of it -- stops undesirable behavior.
"It works like a charm," DeLorme said.
Many of these parents say they are very careful about when and how they administer the pepper-laced condiment: They use only a drop, do it after repeated warnings and as a last-ditch measure. They remain confident that it causes no physical harm, and they say they talk with their child about the misbehavior afterward. They say it is similar to the old-fashioned practice of washing out a child's mouth with soap or to spanking (which some saucers do and some don't).
Crosen, who learned about the technique from a friend who carries packets of hot sauce in her purse to correct her own children's misbehavior, said she administers the sauce only "after many warnings, and for extreme circumstances," like when her son called his 3-year-old sister a "crybaby." She said she uses it about four times per year.
Pediatricians, psychologists and experts on child care and family life contacted for this story strongly recommend against the practice.
Tim Kimmel, a parenting expert who said he approaches parenting from an evangelical Christian perspective, has heard from parents that hot sauce works well. But he does not approve.
"Just because something works, that doesn't mean it's a good idea," said Kimmel, author of "Grace-Based Parenting" (W Publishing Group).
"Fear can be very effective as a discipline technique, but it's overkill. You haven't corrected the problem, and it means nothing in terms of building character. Our job as parents is to build character, not to adjust behavior."
Lisa Whelchel, actress and author of "Creative Correction: Extraordinary Ideas for Everyday Discipline" (Focus On the Family/Tyndale House), defends the practice.
"A correction has to hurt a little," she said. "An effective deterrent has to touch the child in some way. I don't think Tabasco is such a bad thing." Her book suggests a "tiny" bit of hot sauce be used, and offers alternatives such as lemon juice and vinegar.
Discipline involves "drawing a line to protect the child," Whelchel said, "and if they cross that line, there will be pain." Whelchel said she believes that disciplinary methods should be left up to parents -- who know their child best, are devoted to the child's well-being and can administer punishment with love.
But Betty Jo Zarris, manager of Virginia's child protective services program, said: "We have to have some community standards for what's appropriate to do to children. Common sense would tell you [hot sauce] is not appropriate for a child. The common man on the street would know this is offensive."
The Hot Tongue
DeLorme remembers being "at the point where I would try anything" with her 2 1/2-year old son, whom she described as "a disciplinary challenge." She learned about the use of hot sauce from a friend.
She now uses the pepper sauce, or the threat of it, when her son hits or bites his 5-year-old sister.
"He is better behaved as a result," DeLorme said. "He'll say, 'Please don't give me hot tongue, Mommy,' and [the threat] interrupts his behavior. We'll talk about it, hug and make up. That's what usually happens."
In those rare instances when the threat is not enough, DeLorme pries his mouth open and puts one drop of sauce on her son's tongue. "I don't feel like I am physically hurting him," said DeLorme, who described herself as "opposed to spanking and physical violence."
Like some other parents who use hot sauce, Crosen believes it is an appropriate punishment for "defiant talk. . . . I use it when the mouth is the offending party. He needs to learn to control what's coming out of his mouth. If it's his tongue that gets him in trouble, it's his tongue that gets punished."
As a Christian, she believes that "children need to respect and obey [parents] or they won't learn to respect and obey God. God won't hot sauce you, but you need to learn consequences."
Like DeLorme, Crosen reached a moment with her son where she thought, " 'That's it, I have had it' -- I needed something drastic to get through."
Crosen allows the hot sauce to sit on her son's tongue, then gives him milk and crackers to wash it down before having him explain why he was disrespectful.
Crosen said she thought a lot about whether to use hot sauce and ultimately decided to do it because they felt that teaching consequences would help their children in the long run, Crosen said.
"We tell our kids, 'We're on the same team, we're trying to help you, we want you to have a good life and for people to like you.' "
As for parents who disapprove, "Walk a mile in my shoes first," Crosen said. "What I'm doing is minor compared to what kids used to get 40 or 50 years ago. One drop of hot sauce is not going to hurt him. Everyone has to do what works for them, within reason."
A mother of two children who relocated to Chevy Chase after a series of moves from Louisiana said the use of hot sauce on children who misbehave is widespread there. She used hot tongue once on her 5-year-old, for biting, and still believes in the practice. But she now says she wouldn't do it "because we can communicate more clearly."
The woman, who insisted on not being identified for this story because she didn't want to be publicly associated with the controversial practice, said that use of hot sauce instills fear and confirms the physical mastery of a parent, which she believes are negative outcomes. But "I need some discipline for egregious acts," she said.
The use of sauce is a last resort, a "worst-case scenario," she said, and should remain so. "As parents, we're all trying to do the best by our children. Hugs go a long way. Kids need lots of love and affection."
She has passed on the advice about hot sauce to friends in her child's play group. Like other parents who use hot sauce, she believes that "hot tongue is more of a threat than actual method" of applying discipline.
But when it is used, hot tongue should never be administered in anger, she added, noting that simply sitting down with a child with the hot sauce bottle in front of them causes the two to talk about the child's misbehavior. The bottle, she said, acts like a prop: "better than a hand or a belt."
She is opposed to spanking. "If I hit my child, how can I tell them not to hit someone else? It's the worst type of discipline," she said.
Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist in Boston, fielded occasional questions about hot sauce when he was resident therapist for the Web site Family Education Network. "Tabasco is the most mainstream iconic punishment in our culture," he said.
Like many people, Kendrick uses the brand name "Tabasco" as a shorthand. Tabasco is the proprietary name of a single brand of sauce, made by the McIlhenny Co. of Avery Island, La. The owners of the company condemn the use of their products for child discipline. In an interview, company president Paul McIlhenny called the practice "strange and scary" and "abusive."
Kendrick says parents who use the technique are "at the very least . . . ill-informed." He pointed out that many parents are not aware that hot sauce can burn a child's esophagus and cause the tongue to swell -- a potential choking hazard.
"There are many different kinds of hot sauce on the market, and parents who say they know the dilution to use so it won't sting, or say they only use one drop, are wrong," Kendrick said. "It's done because it hurts. It stings. It burns. It makes you nauseous."
Capsaicin, the substance that makes peppers hot, inflames membranes in the eyes, nose and mouth. While many adults find this feeling pleasurable, capsaicin can cause negative reactions even in the third of the adult population that has no tolerance for ingesting it, according to Joel Gregory, publisher of Chile Pepper magazine.
There are additional risks for children. Giorgio Kulp, a pediatrician in Montgomery County, said that the risk of swelling as well as the possibility of unknown allergies make the use of hot sauce on children dangerous.
"Every child's reaction, physically, is different," he said, adding that a parent who hears that hot sauce works safely on one child should be wary of using it on another child.
Spanking the Tongue
The hot pepper technique's current popularity is due in part to Whelchel, a former Mickey Mouse Club Mouseketeer and actress who played the character Blair on the television series "The Facts of Life" in the 1980s.
In "Creative Correction," now in its fifth printing, the mother of three provides parents with a variety of tips.
For example, she suggests hiding something a child has failed to put away, to teach the lesson that things left out may disappear. She suggests telling a child who refuses to hold your hand while crossing a street, "I can either hold your hand or hold your hair."
In addition, Whelchel offers the following: "For lying or other offenses of the tongue, I 'spank' my kids' tongues. I put a tiny drop of hot sauce on the end of my finger and dab it onto my child's tongue. It stings for a while, but it abates. (It's the memory that lingers!)"
Whelchel's advice was repeated in an Internet chat in which she participated and then circulated on numerous parenting Web sites and discussion groups.
Whelchel -- who is a motivational speaker on home schooling and other parenting topics -- said in an interview that she wrote the book not as a parenting expert, but "from one mom to another."
She said she used hot sauce on her children when they were 4, 5 and 6 years old. They are now 12, 13 and 14. Although she said it worked well for her family, she is aware that the tactic "can be abused."
She is also aware that when the method is discussed by people who cite her book and by those unfamiliar with the practice, "the qualifiers get lost," such as the age at which hot sauce might be appropriate and the amount of hot sauce to use.
"If there's a mom who shakes the bottle on the kid's tongue, that mom probably does deserve to have someone poking into her business," Whelchel said. "But I think most moms are caring and intuitive. You can't throw out a bunch of good stuff because of the exceptions."
"Creative Correction" provides long lists of scriptural passages that, in Whelchel's view, justify a variety of disciplinary practices.
For example, she quotes the Book of Proverbs -- "The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom, but a perverse tongue will be cut out" -- and follows with this suggestion: "A short pinch by a clothespin on the tongue can discourage foul language."
Hot saucing is a topic of debate in some Christian circles.
In 2001, an article in Today's Christian Woman magazine advised parents to use hot sauce on a child's tongue to teach the importance of not talking back. The article offered alternatives, including "yucky-tasting" soap or white vinegar.
But there is wide disagreement even among fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, just as there is among other parents. Some question whether the tongue is the proper target for disciplinary action.
"The tongue doesn't do the lying, the heart does the lying," said Kimmel, the evangelical parenting author. "When you direct a form of discipline to a body part that created the problem, it's like in [other cultures] when they cut off your hand for stealing."
Ken Williams, executive director of Christian Counseling Associates Inc., in Columbia, accepts a connection between lying and the tongue, and allows that the use of hot sauce is "biblically supportable in principle." But "the inordinate pain and cruelty . . . wipes out anything that makes sense."
Other authorities on religious education for children agree. For example, the Christian Homeschool Fellowship on the Web states on a prominent page of its site, "We do not believe that some discipline methods are appropriate -- such as applying hot sauce to the mouths or tongues of children."
Old vs. New
Margaret McGowen of the District, a staff scientist for a trade association and the mother of a 17-month-old, is familiar with the intense feelings about hot sauce. McGowan's mother sauced her tongue when she was 3 and 4 years old, as punishment for telling fibs.
"She told us the devil was dancing on our tongue, and she put a drop of Tabasco on it to drive him away," said McGowen, who grew up in Philadelphia.
McGowen "couldn't connect" the idea of her tongue's getting punished for a lie, though she remembers that "it really did discourage us from fibbing. All I had to do was see the bottle. Even if [my mother] was just using it for cooking or adding it to a recipe, it put fear in me."
McGowen will not pass her saucing experience down to her son.
"I don't need to resort to chemical warfare," she said. Though she does not blame her mother for the punishment "because she was probably ill-informed," McGowen believes that "today we are more educated about the psychology of children."
She still remembers the feeling of hot sauce on her tongue 30 years ago: "It hurt. It burned. It was hard to get rid of the sensation."•
Alison Buckholtz, a Washington area freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to The Post.