Washing a child’s mouth out with soap

When a child uses a swear word or misbehaves in some other way, a parent may wash his or her mouth out with a bar of soap. My mother used this punishment on me when I was three years old. We were playing around in her bed when all of a sudden, I spat in her face. She rushed me to the bathroom and washed my mouth out with a big bar of soap. She had never used that punishment on me before and never did again. I asked her to recall why she used it at that moment:

“I was just so shocked, and I was hurt. I was hurt. It just came to mind, like, there’s only one thing to do here. Now the washing the mouth out was something about saying bad words. It was…so for some reason, I went for that punishment because it felt equivalent. I think I just wanted to, like, shock you.”

My informant is my mother, a 60-year old director of communications for a non-profit in New York City. She cannot recall where she learned this folk punishment from, and does not ever remember her parents using it on her. My mother rarely if ever used corporal punishment, but as she said:

“Well, you know, we were not the strictest of parents, you know, but there was, like, certain things that, you know, we just couldn’t let you guys get away with.”

I think my mother likes this folk punishment only because it evokes this memory we can now laugh at. But I find it really interesting that she only used this folk punishment once it her life. This speaks to the way in which folklore can lie dormant in our heads and then emerge at completely unpredictable moments. There are probably hundreds of pieces of folklore that we don’t even know we know, but something will occur, and all of a sudden we’ll find ourselves performing it.

This folk punishment also has a Pavlovian effect to it. It’s completely visceral and instinctual. It doesn’t teach children anything about the disrespect of their words and actions. Rather, it forces an association into their minds between misbehaving and bodily discomfort. I imagine every time I thought of spitting in someone’s face after that moment (which I hope was not often) I remembered the taste of soap in my mouth and chose against it.