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 use of hot sauce has been advocated in a popular book, in a magazine for Christian women and on Internet sites. Web-based discussions on parenting carry intense, often emotional exchanges on the topic.
But parents aren't the only ones asking "to sauce or not to sauce?" Several state governments have gotten involved in the debate. In Michigan in 2002, a child care center was sanctioned for using hot sauce to discipline a child. The mother of the 18-month-old boy reportedly gave the child care workers permission to use the sauce to help dissuade her son from biting other children.
Virginia's child protective services agency lists hot saucing among disciplinary tactics it calls "bizarre behaviors." The list includes such methods as forcing a child to kneel on sharp gravel, and locking him in a closet.
As with spanking, hot saucing elicits strong reactions, even among friends and family members. When Kim Crosen's mother-in-law discovered that Crosen was using hot sauce on her 5-year-old son, she was shocked, said Crosen, a Fairfax mother of three. Because of the sensitivity of the subject, Crosen agreed to be interviewed for this story only on the condition that she be identified by her maiden name.
After Amanda DeLorme of American University Park posted a message recommending hot sauce to members of DC Urban Moms, a popular e-mail bulletin board, she recalls that she received several responses asking, "How can you do this to your child?"
Parents who use hot sauce say that such tactics as timeouts, lectures, negotiation or restricting certain pleasures have not worked. For them, hot sauce -- or even the threat of it -- stops undesirable behavior.
"It works like a charm," DeLorme said.
Many of these parents say they are very careful about when and how they administer the pepper-laced condiment: They use only a drop, do it after repeated warnings and as a last-ditch measure. They remain confident that it causes no physical harm, and they say they talk with their child about the misbehavior afterward. They say it is similar to the old-fashioned practice of washing out a child's mouth with soap or to spanking (which some saucers do and some don't).
Crosen, who learned about the technique from a friend who carries packets of hot sauce in her purse to correct her own children's misbehavior, said she administers the sauce only "after many warnings, and for extreme circumstances," like when her son called his 3-year-old sister a "crybaby." She said she uses it about four times per year.
Pediatricians, psychologists and experts on child care and family life contacted for this story strongly recommend against the practice.
Tim Kimmel, a parenting expert who said he approaches parenting from an evangelical Christian perspective, has heard from parents that hot sauce works well. But he does not approve.
"Just because something works, that doesn't mean it's a good idea," said Kimmel, author of "Grace-Based Parenting" (W Publishing Group).