Ed. note: Babble’s Bad Parent column features first-person stories about controversial parenting choices. We believe discussing taboos is the best way for all of us to make informed choices. We don’t endorse corporal punishment, or any particular opinion featured in this section, and we encourage you to check out our Health and Development section and our new related resources section (below) for other perspectives.
It all began in the driveway, when my four-year-old, Leo, was learning to ride his bike. He’d grow frustrated and scream, “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” when he couldn’t manipulate the pedals quickly enough, especially when his older brother tore past and dusted him. I puffed up with pride: I’d taught Leo to express his anger.
Then he turned the “stupid” on me.
Generally, I’m the kind of parent who shrugs off outbursts – an effective strategy with my first, who’s all head. No such personality my middle, all-heart child, Leo. The more I ignore him, the louder he shrieks and the meaner he gets. Now, I can understand the outrage of being blown off after giving a dramatic, motion picture-worthy tantrum. What I don’t get, however, is where Leo picked up the word “stupid” in the first place, or how he ever stumbled onto the fantasy he describes of chopping me up with a knife and throwing my bones “into a tree.”
Granted, I did read In Cold Blood when I was pregnant with Leo. And I’ve likely slung around the word “stupid” in front of him once or twice. But never in regards to a person (not within earshot, anyway), and never attached to a dismemberment fantasy. In any case, Leo has thrown a wrench into my sense of myself as a totally laissez-faire, it’ll-pass mother, the kind who adheres to the Summerhill-esque philosophy that, when left to their own devices, kids inevitably correct themselves.
None of my usual tricks were working, so I decided to go corporal with the oldest, least p.c. discipline technique I could think of: washing his mouth out with soap.
Believe me, it wasn’t easy. The very thought of it made me consider turning myself in to Child Protective Services. But one day I was pushed over the edge.
I’d just informed Leo he could not bite his brothers, and he turned his fangs on me. Before he could sink them in, I packed him up the stairs to serve a time out in his bedroom (door open, toys allowed). But when he started screaming, “Stupid Mommy!” non-stop, something in me snapped. Maybe it was that while screaming he tried to kick me, or that during all of this I was balancing his howling baby brother on my hip. Or maybe it was that he announced yet again that he was going to kill me and toss my body parts in the woods. Maybe it was insult fatigue. Maybe I was especially mad because the day had been so lovely until that point. I’d just lovingly assembled another snack of farm-fresh berries, washed the favorite T. Rex T-shirt for the gazillionth time, and spent the morning spending quality time with Leo rock-throwing and aster-hunting in nearby woods.
But all those factors, combined with the rigors (noise pollution, constant body mauling) of raising three boys under the age of six pushed me over the edge.
Leo sniffed danger when I returned after leaving him in his room, an ominous reversal of time out protocol. At first he ventured an innocent, “What are you doing in here?” When I didn’t answer and continued to advance, he went ahead and yelled, “Stupid Mommy!” Predictably, when I flashed the soap, he retreated and cowered with eyes so wide and sweet they could have been culled from a “Child abuse hurts everyone” poster you’d see tacked in a doctor’s office.
Any hesitation on my part was wiped out by another scream of “Stupid Mommy!” I put the soap on his tongue and rubbed it around. After a few rounds, he stopped and stared at the soap.
Back went the soap.
While washing my kid’s mouth out with soap doesn’t fit my definition of cruel and unusual punishment, it still feels eerily like wielding the rod and sending a kid to bed without supper. I have friends who fall on both ends of the discipline spectrum, from those who defend the occasional slap on the hand or smack on the behind (about which I’ve been self-righteously outraged) to ponytailed softies who espouse the practice of hugging their “spirited” kids into “submission,” then rewarding them with ice cream.
Like my parents, who spanked me just twice (for coaxing all the neighborhood kids into playing doctor), then gave it up, I fall closer to the lax, rice cream extreme. As for my husband, his father used to make him hold out his hands after particularly egregious transgressions, then rap his knuckles. When my husband confessed the anticipation was more humiliating than the smack itself, I made him promise we would never, ever spank our kids.
So why does soap in the mouth seem okay to me? Maybe because the practice, popular during the 1940s and 1950s, seems antique in a good way. When it comes to parenting these days, old school is new school: glass bottles, cloth diapers, and no more late-twentieth-century nice-nice, when guilt-addicted parents dished up enough permissiveness and positive reinforcement to render entire generations inept at processing even the gentlest criticism. By not correcting our kids, we leave them vastly under-prepared to cope with the real world.
Not everyone is so gung-ho about my new parenting tool. I’ve asked everyone what they think: my parents, my friends, my husband, my mentors, my shrink, even strangers in the street. I’ve consulted books. And I’ve considered their myriad, sage counter-suggestions: ignore the bad behavior, give strokes for the good. Use time outs. Count. Remember it’s just a phase. Listen, love, hug. Use motivating sticker charts. Take Leo for special outings. Give him words. Let him be. Imagine fitting him with an electric-fence collar, like a dog’s, that will gently jolt him whenever he crosses the line. And let’s not leave out my favorite, posited by my husband: when Leo flips, get into the car and just “drive off somewhere.” (And leave our five-year-old to babysit Leo and the baby?)
At a certain point, it’s time to lay down the law. To be sure, I could probably expend a lot more energy working with Leo to get him to bag the bad language. But I’ve got two other kids to corral. And while I can unleash all host of wily psychological tricks or leave Leo to writhe solo in his favored kitchen corner, while I can continue to best my temper and set limits and be the Mommy Who Rarely Yells and exhaust all the enlightened, attachment parenting avenues that allow him to express his feelings in a safe, loving environment, at a certain point, it’s time to lay down the law.
Which brings us to the best argument in favor of the soap: it worked. It’s been almost a week now – one whole, glorious, “Stupid Mommy”-free week. Leo’s still acting out, though less, and more importantly, he’s curbed his tongue. The baby is bite-free. My husband recovered his voice, which he’d lost from yelling so much. So please, spare me the talk of allowing Leo to share his feelings and, “Oh, the poor darling, he’s a middle child and you crushed him by having another baby and you should spend more time with him and by the way you need to see a shrink.”
Hooey on all that. Tough being in the middle? Suck it up. Hate me? That’s okay, I still love you, enough to sling custom dinner plates and give you super snuggles and conduct house-wide hunts at bedtime for Little Bear, every day, any day, for as long as we both shall live. But it’s also my job to make sure Leo learns that it’s not okay to call me, or anyone else, names. To that end, I have to do whatever it takes.
Article photo: Mfortki