Monday, April 25, 2005

Tough love and peppers
I'm not a big follower of crime news, but when I heard this one on teevee Friday night, a couple details jumped out and caught my attention. Here is the basic story from the Tacoma News Tribune:
As she led a pair of Bonney Lake police officers into her garage Thursday morning, Rachel Lambert called to someone inside.

“The police are here to help me deal with you!” she said.

On the floor sat a 10-year-old boy, his ankles bound by plastic wire, his hands tied behind his back. The wires on his feet attached to the lid of a garbage can, weighted down with boxes.

Layers of yellow masking tape covered the lower half of his face, starting just below the nose. The officer asked if he could breathe. The boy nodded.

The other officer pulled Lambert out of the garage and asked a question.

“What’s going on?”

Lambert pulled a box of wire ties from the top of the refrigerator and said something like, “My husband gave me these and told me when the children get out of control, use these.”

Officers soon found another child in the garage – a 9-year-old girl, bound at the ankles. Police arrested Lambert and her husband, Brad. They spent the night in the Pierce County Jail.


The boy said he had been bound with handcuffs. The girl said she spent Easter Day in the recycle bin.

Officers searched the bin and found more wire ties. They found more on the bedposts where the children slept. The beds had mattresses but no bedding. Officers said they found no toys.

So far, this has all of the typical elements of a sickening, but far too common, abuse story. Rachel Lambert didn't seem to think there is anything unusual or wrong about tying her children to a water heater for the night. These two children were singled out for extraordinary discipline while two older children were not. Police, neighbors, and relatives all expressed shock even though the father, Brad Lambert, has a previous record for abuse. After the hospital checked the kids out, they were turned over to their grandparents (Brad's parents).

As I said, the pattern is horrifyingly familiar. So, what caught my attention? This:
Bonney Lake police said Rachel Lambert claimed the children's behavior had gotten progressively worse over the past month and that she disciplined the children by feeding them jalapeno peppers, the documents indicated.

The 10-year-old boy said "he had a hot pepper placed in his mouth and then had his mouth taped shut," the documents indicated. He told police "he swallowed the pepper so it would not be in his mouth anymore."

Police said another form of punishment Lambert used was to have the two children "stand in a tub of cold water and write out sentences."

It was the mention of the peppers that caught my attention. The Friday night news story also had the grandfather quoted saying his son told him he was practicing "tough love," but he didn't realize it was this bad.

The phrase "tough love" comes out of the drug rehabilitation community, but it is probably best known to most people in the context of an evangelical Christian, pro-corporal punishment, anti Dr. Spock movement that has been synonymous with James Dobson since the 1970's.
"Corporal punishment in the hands of a loving parent is a teaching tool by which harmful behavior is inhibited."

"Most (children) need to be spanked now and then."

"Two or three stinging strokes on the legs or buttocks with a switch are usually sufficient to emphasize the point, 'You must obey me.'"

"When a youngster tries this kind of stiff-necked rebellion, you had better take it out of him, and pain is a marvelous purifier."

"Minor pain can...provide excellent motivation for the child... There is a muscle, lying snugly against the base of the neck... When firmly squeezed, it sends little messengers to the brain saying, 'This hurts; avoid recurrence at all costs'."

"When a youngster tries this kind of stiff-necked rebellion, you had better take it out of him, and pain is a marvelous purifier."

"Real crying usually lasts two minutes or less, but may continue for five. After that point, the child is merely complaining... I would require him to stop the protest crying, usually by offering him a little more of whatever caused the original tears."

These quotes are from Dobson's two best known books, Dare to Discipline and The Strong Willed Child. Combined, they have sold five million copies. It might seem unfair, to some, to judge him on the basis of a few out-of-context sound bites. But, consider, how many of the owners of those five million copies read the books carefully and how many only absorbed the most vivid and exciting ideas?

My own experience with Dobson's books was as a clerk in a bookstore in Alaska during the eighties. Periodically, following a recommendation by a talk show or local minister, we would be flooded by requests for Dobson's books. From my own totally accurate and objective perspective, the buyers came in two main types, cult-like zombies ("I was told I must get this book") and the vindicated, those who seemed to be buying the book because it backed up what they already believed. Neither of those seemed to inclined to read carefully or thoughtfully.

Satisfied Amazon customers describe their experiences this way, the original edition of Dare to Discipline:
"My father used Dobson's methodology as a license to strike. If you wish to die alone in a nursing home, I suggest you listen to those who worship hate and violence."

"Book should be entitled "Dare to Hit Your Child with Whatever is Handy". Dobsen extols (sic) virtues of his wife snapping their not yet two-year-old with a switch across the shins, can you imagine? He also attests that he received great benefit, as a child, by being spontaneously walloped by his mom's girdle, complete with buckles and straps."

For the new edition of Dare to Discipline:
"It seems to this reader that, at the core, Dr. Dobson has no trust in the abilities of children to learn, to reason, to develop as moral creatures from the example and gentle teaching of their parents. And, through the course of the discipline methods he advocates, he has no compunction about destroying a child's trust in his or her parents."

For the new edition of The Strong Willed Child:
"His methods are mainly those of the schoolyard bully and seem to be contrived to raise kids who are afraid of you. Is that really the result you want?"

Recently, a spin-off of Dobson's movement has appeared that calls itself "Creative Correction." The name sounds like the whole point is to prevent the parents from getting bored with the same old blows, but that's not it at all. The theory is that the punishment should fit the crime in a Biblically based way. This sounds like it should lead to lots of stoning, eye poking, and hand casting away. The current guru of the movement, Lisa Whelchel, hasn't gone that far yet, but she's certainly on that road.

SZ at World O' Crap filled us in on this lovely trend last August, starting with this Washington Post article and adding some happy quotes from Whelchel's popular book on the subject.
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.


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.

And somehow the idea made its way to an abusive parent in Bonney Lake, Washington. Out of Tabasco? No problem, use whole jalapenos.

Just for the record, McIlhenny Co., the maker of Tabasco Sauce, does not endorse "hot tongue" and calls the practice "strange and scary" and "abusive." It's also dangerous.

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.

If a few drops of Tabasco can be a choking hazard in child's mouth, how dangerous is swallowing a whole pepper with your mouth taped shut, after the adults have gone, and left you tied to the water heater?

Obviously, I think the judge should throw the book at the Lamberts. I think she or he should go out and buy a much bigger book for the sole purpose of throwing at them. To me, that would be the feel-good response, but it's not a solution to the problem. Dobson and Whelchel are the problem. They can add nice warnings to their books ("...don't overdo it") and these might be sufficient to protect them from legal liability. However, they are not sufficient to end their moral responsibility, and I think we are safe in saying that they are big fans of moral responsibility. They are spreading the twin messages that physical punishment of children is a good and godly thing and that parents should look for new and creative ways to punish their kids. In the wrong minds, this adds up to permission from authority figures to indulge in torture. How long before this kind of tough love kills some kids? How many has it already killed?

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