Does washing out your child's mouth with soap work? We explain why the experts say no.

By Sandra Y. Lee, Picture by Roman Grey
June 11, 2015
Credit: Roman Grey

Q: My 4-year-old is talking back and using bad words. Can I wash his mouth out with soap to teach him a lesson?

A: While you might assume such punishment is appropriate, it actually reinforces your child's negative behavior, says Gary D. McKay, Ph.D., a Tucson, AZ-based psychologist and coauthor of Raising Respectful Kids in a Rude World. "When kids do things like that and get a shocked or angry reaction from parents, they feel a sense of power," he says. The more you respond, the more he'll act up.

What you can do: Seem totally unimpressed, says Dr. McKay. Calmly tell your child, "I don't like that kind of language, and when you say those words, I won't pay attention to you." Then expect his behavior to get worse; this is what Dr. McKay calls "the testing period." After a week or two, your child should give up using the rude words because he won't get anything out of it. Above all, says Dr. McKay, you can help by setting a good example and speaking respectfully to others, including your child.

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Copyright © 2002. Reprinted with permission from the June/July 2002 issue of Child magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.