How I Traumatized My Preschooler With The Viral 'Pepper Experiment'

by Lily Latson
Originally Published: 
A see-through bowl of ground pepper placed on a checkered tablecloth
Courtesy of Lily Latson

Being a parent is hard. I am stating nothing new, I know.

Being a parent during the current global pandemic has added a few additional challenges. Being a parent to a preschooler during a global pandemic who doesn’t quite grasp why they suddenly cannot go to the park or see their friends, woof. I feel like Happy Gilmore at the batting cages, only with no padding.

So how do we talk to our two, three, or four-year-olds about something as surreal as what is happening in the world? How do we put into words what is going on, without passing along the anxieties we are feeling, while still expressing the seriousness of it all?

I am not going to lie. My first reaction was to say nothing. They don’t need to know all of this. Let them live in their childhood fun castle. But then swim lessons got cancelled. School got cancelled. Parks were closed. Then my three-year-old told me that he was sad because his friends didn’t want to see him anymore. Hi Knife. Meet Heart.

He is three. How can I explain to him how everything just went upside down, when I still feel like I am living in a daze? My heart is breaking for him. So I pulled up my bootstraps and called on my good friend pepper.

Courtesy of Lily Latson

Pepper, as in the spice. Not someone I know. You see, a few months back, we took on the challenge of potty training our newly turned three-year-old over the holidays since my husband and I were both home and could “devote time at home to it.” Yeah, I know. It seems farcical that we were concerned about finding three days to stay home now that we have spent seven-plus WEEKS stuck in the house. While potty training is my least favorite part of being a parent, we faced an additional challenge right before this whole pandemic thing started. The three-year-old began refusing to wash his hands. There was the pleading, the cajoling, the stern voices, the threats. All the normal cast of characters that rear their ugly heads when trying to convince a strong willed three-year-old to do anything they are not inclined to do. They all made an appearance at our hand washing party. It was the fifth layer of Dante’s Inferno.

Then my college roomie shared this brilliant video on Facebook about the power of soap. It was like a light bulb went off in my head. In the video, a parent puts a bowl of water in front of a young child. The parent and child sprinkle regular black pepper into the water, and the child sticks their finger in it. The tiny little finger comes out covered in black pepper. Then, the parent takes two or three drops of dish soap and drops it in the water. The pepper shoots off into every direction like the boys in my kindergarten class when some of the girls decided they wanted to play “kissy-kissy.” The visual is great for showing a preschooler the power of soap.

The next afternoon during a hand washing power struggle, I pulled out my big guns. My three-year-old and I did the “Pepper Experiment.” I was crossing my fingers and praying this actually worked like the video. Cause you know I was just flying by the seat of my pants and hadn’t actually tried this. After all, you know if you see it on Facebook, it must be true, right?

Courtesy of Lily Latson

Luck was on my side and it worked perfectly. And like magic, it clicked with my three-year-old that he needed to wash his hands. Now, any time he fights me on it, I tell him he needs to go wash the pepper off his hands and he runs to do it. I brush the dust off my shoulder, name myself parent of the day, and move on.

During our first week of sheltering in place, my three-year-old was getting restless and starting to ask questions about when we were going to swim class, etc. I was firmly committed to my ostrich stance with him and just wasn’t going to discuss COVID-19. It was only going to be 2–4 weeks max that we were going to be doing this. I saw no need to toss propane into the fire.

Courtesy of Lily Latson

Then it hit me. I could use the pepper and soap example to explain what was going on. We started discussing the experiment and talking through what happened. I then told him that right now, the whole world is covered in pepper. And we needed to wait for all the doctors and nurses to clean everything with soap to get rid of. I had zero idea if this would actually work. But he nodded and said “Yeah.” So we moved on.

Over the past several weeks, especially on warm, spring days when we go outside for a walk around our block, he will ask me if there is still pepper out there. When I always say there is, he sadly says, “Oh. Okay.” Then the topic is over. I then forget about it until the next time he mentions it. Last week, he panicked and shrieked because there was a crow in the yard. He was scared the crow was going to get pepper. Another day, he was looking out the window and said, “All the pepper.” He sounded so wise beyond his years as his tiny voice spoke these discouraging words.

Courtesy of Lily Latson

At this point, I am pretty sure I have traumatized my son and he will grow up hating pepper. I tried briefly to explain the difference between the pepper we cook with and the “pepper” that has turned our world upside down. But realized I couldn’t even understand what I was trying to explain, so I gave up.

So for those who are struggling to explain why our world is topsy-turvy to their young children, you are not alone. This is hard. You are facing challenges that will take you to your knees. Celebrate the moments when something clicks and embrace the good days. And breathe deep, or cry, through the bad ones.

And to my son’s future wife, I am sorry he won’t eat pepper. That one is on me.

Courtesy of Lily Latson

This article was originally published on