Advice on a Rather “Unique” Disciplinary Method

Dear Dr. Bill,

Should you ever wash your child’s mouth out with soap?


Dear Sarah,

That depends on how much dirt you find in there (just kidding!)  Over the years many parents have chosen to try this disciplinary method.  When a child repeatedly uses profanity or speaks in a particularly disrespectful or mean-spirited way, some parents reach for the Irish Spring.

I recall that my grandmother washed my mouth out with soap when I was about 9 or 10—I can still remember the bitter taste of that bar of Ivory.  I can tell you that it was quite effective in changing my behavior.  I can’t remember what I said, but I definitely never said it again.

Many parents would never consider washing a child’s mouth out with soap, and some might even consider it abusive.  For those parents, there are other consequences that can be used to discourage kids from using obscene or disrespectful language.

These include taking away a favorite toy for a time, the loss of a valued activity or privilege, or being required to perform extra chores around the house.

As I’ve mentioned before, in order for consequences to be effective, parents need to follow through, and back up their words with actions.  Consequences need to be administered immediately (or soon after the offense) and they need to be powerful enough to mean something to the child.

Many parents forget that the most effective way to discipline is to balance negative consequences with positive ones.  In other words, praise and reward your child for good behavior just as often as you punish them for bad behavior.

And consequences always need to be delivered in a context of love.  As Josh McDowell says, “rules without relationship leads to rebellion.”

Thanks for writing, Sarah.  If you have a question for me about family issues or Christian living, click the “Questions” link on the Family Expert page.

Click here for the audio version of this article.