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Feeling the Heat

"We tell our kids, 'We're on the same team, we're trying to help you, we want you to have a good life and for people to like you.' "

As for parents who disapprove, "Walk a mile in my shoes first," Crosen said. "What I'm doing is minor compared to what kids used to get 40 or 50 years ago. One drop of hot sauce is not going to hurt him. Everyone has to do what works for them, within reason."

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A mother of two children who relocated to Chevy Chase after a series of moves from Louisiana said the use of hot sauce on children who misbehave is widespread there. She used hot tongue once on her 5-year-old, for biting, and still believes in the practice. But she now says she wouldn't do it "because we can communicate more clearly."

The woman, who insisted on not being identified for this story because she didn't want to be publicly associated with the controversial practice, said that use of hot sauce instills fear and confirms the physical mastery of a parent, which she believes are negative outcomes. But "I need some discipline for egregious acts," she said.

The use of sauce is a last resort, a "worst-case scenario," she said, and should remain so. "As parents, we're all trying to do the best by our children. Hugs go a long way. Kids need lots of love and affection."

She has passed on the advice about hot sauce to friends in her child's play group. Like other parents who use hot sauce, she believes that "hot tongue is more of a threat than actual method" of applying discipline.

But when it is used, hot tongue should never be administered in anger, she added, noting that simply sitting down with a child with the hot sauce bottle in front of them causes the two to talk about the child's misbehavior. The bottle, she said, acts like a prop: "better than a hand or a belt."

She is opposed to spanking. "If I hit my child, how can I tell them not to hit someone else? It's the worst type of discipline," she said.

Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist in Boston, fielded occasional questions about hot sauce when he was resident therapist for the Web site Family Education Network. "Tabasco is the most mainstream iconic punishment in our culture," he said.

Like many people, Kendrick uses the brand name "Tabasco" as a shorthand. Tabasco is the proprietary name of a single brand of sauce, made by the McIlhenny Co. of Avery Island, La. The owners of the company condemn the use of their products for child discipline. In an interview, company president Paul McIlhenny called the practice "strange and scary" and "abusive."

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.

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