SmackDown: Would You Make Your Kid Drink Hot Sauce as Punishment?

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drink hot sauce

Is making your kid drink hot sauce child abuse? Illustration by Dori Hartley

Hot Sauce Doesn't Constitute Child Abuse

by Tom Henderson

Ohmigod! Another child killed by hot sauce! When will this madness end?!

Oh, wait. A mother in Anchorage, Alaska, punished her son by forcing him to drink hot sauce, but he didn't actually die. Yet 36-year-old Jessica Beagley has been arrested for ... for ... what?

Felonious hot saucing?

Granted, forcing your 7-year-old son to take a cold shower and drink hot sauce comes right off a page from of Dr. Evil's Guide to Child Rearing. However, it's an old book.

My father got a mouth full of hot sauce during the '30s and '40s if he so much as thought about the F word. My mother was more enlightened and progressive. She made me take a swig of Woolite. This was after I psyched her out by saying Dial soap tasted good.

"Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child," Proverbs 22:15 tells us. "But the rod of correction shall drive it far from him."

Our forebears took that passage seriously. And hot sauce is a dandy substitute if the rod of correction isn't handy. Such, uh, creative brands of punishment are no longer in vogue, but that doesn't mean they are criminal. Our parents and grandparents somehow managed to survive to maturity.

Personally, I would never resort to such harsh punishments. Psychological torture is much more effective -- and fun. Yet I think we should tread lightly when applying our standards to others.

Beagley got in trouble after she sent a tape of what she did to her 7-year-old son Kristoff to -- of all people -- Dr. Phil McGraw. He showed it to the world on a segment called "Mommy Confessions." The studio audience turned into a veritable barnyard of clucking chickens.

"Dr. Phil, no one in this audience can stay in our seats," Areva Martin, a family attorney and child advocate, said during the show. "We're just appalled at this. We're looking at this little boy who seems so sweet and innocent, and we're looking at this behavior as moms. We're just shocked."

Audience members were not alone. Viewers across the country flooded the Anchorage Police Department with calls for Beagley's arrest. Police obliged the angry mob, charging Beagley with child abuse.

"Nothing Jessica has done is criminal, Bill Ingaldson, a lawyer for Beagley, tells ABC News. "If you give your child food that has hot sauce on it -- maybe they eat Mexican food -- does that mean its child abuse?"

Good point. There is a fine line between child abuse and strict punishment. Wherever it's drawn, it should be by competent legal authorities after a thorough investigation, not a bunch of a reactionary hens clucking about something they saw on "Dr. Phil."

A television audience is not a courtroom jury.

Few people even spank their kids nowadays. I have spanked my own son exactly twice. Both times he was in imminent danger, and there was no time to explain the situation to a crib dweller whose vocabulary didn't extend far beyond "goo goo." I have also grabbed him by his short collar a time or two, but that's been it in terms of physical punishment.

However, I know if I pulled half my son's shenanigans when I was a lad, I would have found myself on a one-way flight across the living room courtesy of Dad Airlines. And my dad is about the sweetest guy in the world. But standards change.

Yesterday's stern punishment is today's child abuse. We shouldn't jail someone just because she's behind the curve.

Not all change is good. We might be kinder, gentler parents than our forebears. However, we seem to have lost our grasp on what -- and is not -- any of our damn business. Reality TV and talk shows like "Dr. Phil" apparently make us think we have a license to judge.

Beagley clearly sent the tape to Dr. Phil not to brag, but to seek help. She mistakenly thought she would get it. Instead, she was scorned and ridiculed as the latest freak in our ongoing national sideshow.

Her biggest crime was not forcing Kristoff to drink hot sauce. My guess? He'll survive. He might have a few therapy bills later on, but who among us reaches adulthood without baggage?

No, Beagley's biggest crime was looking for help from a nation of reactionary and judgmental busybodies.

Save the Hot Sauce for Her Lawyer and Dr. Phil

by Jennifer Mattern

At the very least, Jessica Beagley (a.k.a. "Hot Sauce Mom") needs a new lawyer, one capable of issuing a statement that is not completely inane.

"Nothing Jessica has done is criminal. If you give your child food that has hot sauce on it -- maybe they eat Mexican food -- does this mean it's child abuse?" Bill Ingaldson, Beagley's lawyer, tells ABC.

I'd love to hear Ingaldson argue the pros of waterboarding at Guantánamo Bay: "Nothing the U.S. government has done is criminal. If you take your prisoners to a waterpark -- maybe they like the Roaring Rapids -- does this mean it's prisoner abuse?"

A proffered taste of Mexican food does not equal a bottle of hot sauce forced into a sobbing child's mouth. (I could argue that Taco Bell is abuse for the whole family, but that's another SmackDown entirely.)

Let's back up: If you haven't heard, Beagley, a 36-year-old mother of six from Alaska, was recently charged with child abuse and arrested, following a November appearance on "Dr. Phil." The segment, called "Mommy Confessions," featured home video of Beagley screaming and shaming her 7-year-old adopted son, Kristoff, by pouring hot sauce into his mouth as consequence for telling lies, then forcing the child to strip and climb into an ice-cold shower. She confessed that she is angry at her son "all the time" and has tried numerous methods to punish him, to no avail.

I watched the video, submitted freely to Dr. Phil by Beagley herself. Three things occurred to me: 1) Appearing on "Dr. Phil" in a video showcasing your worst parenting moment is never a super-savvy move; 2) None of us would look fantastic on home video captured during our worst parenting moment; and, 3) This is a mom who is aware that she needs help and is aware she is doing damage -- or she wouldn't have agreed to ask Dr. Phil for his dubious "help."

I'm not in the business of vilifying other parents. Parenting is a dirty job, and at various times, every parent makes a damn mess of it. But I don't believe that hauling her ass into court is going to address this incredibly sad matter at its core. Using hot sauce and cold showers on a regular basis to discipline a child is repugnant, certainly. But there are two issues in play that are far more sobering to consider than the act itself: How did the ugly dynamic between Beagley and her son escalate to this point? And what will the consequences of her extreme corporal punishment be in the long-term?

There are no published studies available on the far-reaching consequences of hot-sauce-and-cold-shower discipline. But the cons of physical discipline are well documented. Take your pick. In a 2009 study conducted by Duke University and other top universities, researchers found that when parents' use of physical discipline continues through childhood, they're far more likely to have serious behavior problems by the time they become teens.

In addition, corporal punishment actually creates more aggression in children, according to a 2004 study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health "[S]tudies showed that corporal punishment was linked with difficulties later in life ... the study takes into account other possible explanations for aggressive behavior such as violence between parents and maternal depression, drug abuse and neglect. It does, however, point to the explanation that spanking is the biggest factor that contributes to a child's aggressive behavior," the study states.

The studies of sociologist and family researcher Murray A. Straus suggest this common-sense conclusion: "When a parent resorts to physical punishment and the child does not comply, the parent increases the severity of the punishment, eventually harming the child."

Jessica Beagley and her son are caught up in a devastating cycle of abuse. This family needs counseling, stat -- and not of the sensationalist Dr. Phil variety.

I'll finish up with a quote from my favorite child psychology expert, my 10-year-old daughter:

"One spank is one spank. But being shoved into a freezing shower and getting hot sauce poured in your mouth makes you afraid of your mother. The results are just pain. Their throat would burn. And they could choke. They lose trust. And that's really hard to get back."

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.