Many of us have a fond (or not so fond) memory of being forced to wash our mouths out with soap when our parents caught us peppering our sentences with profanity. Having soap in our mouths felt as normal as running through sprinklers and eating frozen Kool-Aid popsicles. Having a bar of soap saturating my tongue was a hallmark of my youth, and yes, evidence of my early potty mouth.
I remember laughing until it hurt when I watched the scene in A Christmas Story where Ralphie was forced to keep a bar of soap in his mouth and fantasized about going blind to make his parents feel guilty for their cruel punishment. The scene resonated with me because, while I accepted soap-eating as a natural consequence for my cursing crimes, I still hated it.
Years later, as a parent, I didn’t think twice about stuffing a bar of Dial or Irish Spring (whatever bar soap I had on hand) into my sons’ mouths when they innocently blurted cuss words in my presence. In fact, I was so delighted the first time my youngest said “shit!” that I took a picture of him holding a green bar of soap in his mouth and even posted it to Facebook to memorialize the moment. In the image my son, whose cheeks were puckered and tongue slightly swollen, looked stoic, focused intently on the bar in his mouth, but I remember him laughing between takes.
Now, seven years since that photo was liked and laughed at on social media, I have a completely different view on this form of discipline. I’ll just say it — I think it’s stupid, and even worse: abusive.
Over the years that followed, I learned about chemicals and how they impact our bodies. While my parents and their parents didn’t really have a grasp on how items that didn’t have a skull and crossbones clearly marked on their packaging could hurt us, modern medicine tells us otherwise. Detergents, dyes and perfumes can cause burns, swelling, stomach upset and diarrhea, just to name a few detrimental effects.
Why on earth would I want to poison my child for saying a word he most likely learned from me or his father? How fucked up is that?
Not only is it potentially toxic, it DOESN’T WORK! Never did a bar of soap in my mouth deter me from cussing up a storm to impress my friends. It just made me better at hiding it around my parents. Now that my sons are 18 and 16, I can attest to the fact that soap didn’t make them clean up their expletive-laced vocabulary, either.
As an older, wiser mom, I’m sad that when my children were still children, I didn’t have the sense to evaluate my discipline style. If I could do it over again, I wouldn’t jump to the first trick in my parenting bag without weighing the impact it could have on my sons. I wouldn’t potentially poison my children for using language I modeled daily to them and then told them not to use.
Instead, I’d most likely talk to them about why they shouldn’t say things like "shit" and "fuck," and make an effort to curb my own cussing as well. If that didn’t work, I’d institute a less-toxic consequence, such as a swear-word jar or a loss of privileges. I’d also know that my kids, most likely, will still cuss. It’s a part of our vernacular, and using “adult words” can make a child feel powerful. If I could have a do-over, I’d work on finding other ways to empower my children so that they didn’t have to rely on bad language to do so.
We all get to choose how we discipline our children, but just because our parents did it doesn’t make it right for our kids. Having consequences for bad behavior is important for children to develop a sense of right and wrong, but we should also take a moment to evaluate whether or not those consequences make sense or do more damage than good. Otherwise, we’re perpetuating a cycle of hurting our kids instead of truly teaching them how to behave.