Ask Amy Amy Dickinson, Ask Amy

Amy Dickinson is a general advice columnist.

DEAR AMY: At a play group recently with my toddler son, another mother with whom I am acquainted (but not close to) mentioned in the course of conversation that she washed her 5-year-old’s mouth out with soap to curb his lying. She obviously thought it was no big deal. I was so shocked I didn’t know how to respond. While I agree it’s necessary to teach young children how to be truthful, I neither believe a 5-year-old is old enough to grasp fully the consequences of dishonesty, nor do I think the lies could be of such an extreme nature to warrant a severe punishment. I believe that washing a child’s mouth out with soap is tantamount to child abuse. What can I do in the future to share my perspective with a parent who divulges such behavior? I realize it’s not my child and the parent’s actions do not affect me or my child directly, but it’s challenging to not take action when a child is treated in such a way.

Wondering parent

DEAR PARENT: First of all, washing a mouth out with soap to curb a 5-year-old’s lying? This particular punishment has traditionally been used to try to curb a young child’s potty mouth. The effort to “wash” bad words from a child’s mouth at least makes sense symbolically, using (childish) logic that children can perhaps understand on some level.

Forcing anything — certainly anything toxic, such as soap — into the mouth of a child is abuse. Would the mother think it was “no big deal” if someone else (say, a teacher) did this to her child?

Children do survive this awful brand of parenting, and sometimes they go on to laugh about it with their parents later. Sometimes, not — especially if the terrible judgment leads to other abusive punishments.

My own mother, who was a caring and compassionate parent, admitted to using this soap technique one time. But she said more than once during my childhood that she felt terrible and foolish doing it, and that it had been a mistake, and that she would never do it again.

Having a parent admit to such a mistake when I was a child was a powerful lesson. Parents make dumb mistakes, just as children do.

All children lie. Parents should make sure the child knows not only that lying is wrong, but that the truth will set them free.

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Young children frequently lie about mistakes they have made. A parent needs to convey, “It is OK for you to tell me about bad things you have done. I trust you to tell me the truth, and you can trust me to help you deal with your own mistakes.”

When a parent admits to you that she has done something abusive, you should respond, “Wow — I find that shocking. That is abusive. I hope you don’t ever do that again.” If the parent doesn’t take this feedback well, then so be it. At least you have told the truth, and she can’t shove soap into your mouth to punish you for it.

DEAR AMY: I’m a grown woman with children. I come from a family I would consider to be close. We have shared lots of occasions together with our children. I have one sibling who is hard to be around. He is so condescending and rude. He likes to talk about himself and shows little interest in me or my kids, or what I do every day. How I can disengage and not let this bother me?

Upset Sibling

DEAR SIBLING: Disengaging from someone who doesn’t demonstrate that he cares about you should not bother you. It should feel good. If it doesn’t feel like a relief, then don’t do it.

With adult siblings, a level of acceptance should accompany this disengagement. You tell yourself, “My sibling is like this. I can’t change him. But I don’t need to welcome it into my own life.”

Accept this unfortunate reality. And then withdraw.

DEAR AMY: “Frustrated Driver” was furious that a teenage neighbor girl who rode in his car to school would not say hello to him. Your response was spot on. As the parent of a now 17-year-old high school girl, I can tell you my daughter is painfully awkward. She won’t answer the house phone, either, for fear of having to converse with someone. It’s not that she’s shy, but she has yet to feel confident and comfortable in her own skin. So lighten up Dad; it’s not about you.

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Understanding Parent

DEAR PARENT: Exactly.