Put Away the Hot Sauce, Take Time for Teaching....

By Lauren Bondy, LCSW

Recently Jessica Beagley of Alaska, better known as “The Hot Sauce Mom” received international news coverage after appearing on the Dr Phil Show with a videotape of her punishing her 7 year old son, first by forcing him to put hot sauce in his mouth and then putting him in an ice cold shower.  All of this while being told, despite his sobbing and pleas for mercy, that the punishment was a consequence for lying and bad behavior at school.  The entire incident was filmed by his 10 year old sister at the mother’s direction, to be part of a Dr Phil Show episode on problem children. 

To watch this incident is heartbreaking and painful; and it certainly evoked strong emotions in me, and perhaps millions of viewers.  As a parent educator who has worked with thousands of stressed parents one of my first thoughts upon seeing this disturbing footage was that Jessica Beagley is not entirely unique.  Though an extreme case, she is one of many parents who treat their children in hurtful ways.

In a follow-up interview with Beagley and a professional counselor, she states that she fully believed that she was doing the right thing for her child.  Clearly, she believed that it was necessary for him to suffer in order to learn.  Her unrelenting questions to her son such as, “Do we lie in this house?” Are you allowed to lie when you live in my house?”, “Did you make good choices or bad choices?” was an attempt at teaching him improved behavior.  Most parents believe that lying is wrong and have expectations that their children make good choices.  It seems that Beagley’s intention was good, but her method of implementation flawed.  In fact, her beliefs and methods so flawed that it led to the serious physical and emotional abuse of her son (stay tuned for future blog post on children and “lying.”).

Beagley represents the extreme of what we at Parenting Perspectives call Caveman Parenting (see our blog post Are You Parenting Like a Caveman?).  Caveman Parenting is the outdated belief handed down for generations that children need to suffer in order to learn.  Belief systems are formed through our childhood experiences. Everyone’s belief systems are a type of personal programming. Some programming causes reactive behavior.  And in parents, it causes reactive parenting.  None of us escape programming or reactivity.  It is part of the human experience.

If you review the comments on the news websites, most are expressions of outrage and indignation.  There are also a striking number of comments that suggested that Beagley and her husband, receive similar treatment:  hot sauce and cold showers as punishment for their behavior.  These suggestions reflect outdated Caveman mentality.   Millions of parents believe that children need to be punished.  Perhaps not in an abusive manner, but punished nonetheless.  And then there are parents who believe in teaching rather than punishing, yet still frequently parent from a reactive place.  After all, what parent has never resorted to punishing, yelling, shaming, or scolding when pushed beyond their limit?  Many parents spend large portions of their day in these reactive ways.  Reactive parenting is another aspect of Caveman mentality.  It’s not easy to acknowledge that we all have aspects within us that mirror “The Hot Sauce Mom.” Perhaps not to the extreme of Beagley’s abuse and violence, but we are all programmed to react.  And many of us have not transcended the long-held limiting beliefs about punishment.

To move away from Caveman Parenting, we first need to recognize when we are reactive towards our children.  Then we can begin shifting towards responding consciously. It may be easy for parents toss off yelling, punishing, shaming, scolding by saying, “Well, I’m only human.” But what really distinguishes humans from animals is our power to choose our response.  And this choice is only possible when we have evolved in a conscious way by taking full responsibility for our reactive patterns.

Years of teaching parenting skills and helping my clients understand their reactive nature have taught me that most parents quickly and instinctively identify with the underlying principles that Parenting Perspectives teaches.  With support, parents can learn how to take responsibility for their reactive patterns, expand their parenting toolbox so that they have many choices during challenges, and deepen their understanding of their child’s temperament and development.  After all, “discipline” means to teach.  

Although Beagley’s story has caused many of us great pain, there is a clearly a gift to be found.  The best of intentions do not compensate for misinformed or outdated belief systems, sparse parenting techniques and reactive parenting.  All parents can benefit from support to make sure they are parenting from a place of consciousness rather than reactivity.