Iam not much of a Type A mom. I’m not a helicopter mom, a tiger mom, or a lawnmower mom; basically I don’t go to any great lengths to control my kids’ environments. Instead, I try to let the world be what it is and teach my kids to adapt to it. But, so help me God, if you try to tickle my kid, I will pounce on you like a cheetah on an antelope.
When I was a kid, a family friend tormented me with tickling. He was a buddy of my father’s, a cheerful, playful guy who loved kids. Almost every time he came over, he would tickle me to the point that I couldn’t breathe, much less voice that I wanted it to stop. I was laughing, but I was so uncomfortable, and I remember vividly how, through my abject panic, I’d try to take a breath between the involuntary shrieks of laughter, all the time kicking and fighting. I sometimes wondered if I’d eventually pass out from lack of air. When it was finally over, I’d burst into furious tears, and he would seem utterly baffled that I was upset. “But you were laughing!” He did this to my little sister too, and after a while, whenever he came over, we hid in our rooms. I don’t remember if my parents witnessed it, or, if they did, whether they understood how much my sister and I hated it. Now that I’m older, I see it all through a whole new lens.
I get that for many, tickling is a totally uncomplicated and basic expression of love–a form of affectionate play. There’s no sweeter sound than a child’s laughter, and it’s so easy to whip up a batch of delicious giggles with tickling. Plus, a lot of kids love it and invite it explicitly.
BUT here’s why I still think tickling can be problematic:
1. Tickling can lead to confusion about body autonomy.
Far less aggressive tickle play than what I described above can still cross the line into non-consensual touch. When a child is feeling uncomfortable and wanting the play to stop but also laughing at the same time, they can experience an unhealthy cognitive dissonance: “I’m uncomfortable, and I don’t like this, but I was laughing, so I must have enjoyed it.” For obvious reasons, this is not a lesson we want to teach our children.
2. Consent is muddy.
Sometimes the person being tickled is laughing so hard they can’t breathe, let alone give verbal consent. So, they’re laughing–involuntarily–which leads the tickler to believe that everything is fine and that the person they’re tickling is having a great time. Meanwhile the tickled person may in fact feel helpless and panicked. (That was me.)
That said, tickling can be great! Especially because it can be used as a tool to teach consent. In my house, we put a couple of hard-and-fast rules in place around tickling, and they apply whether it’s kids-only, kids and adults, whatever:
- Consent must come first, and it must be crystal clear. My daughter likes when her dad tickles her, but she has complete control over when it starts and stops.
- There must be a way to “tap out.” Kind of like a safe word, and it should be established before tickling starts. The signal to stop should be something the kid can manage while in the throes of laughter, like a shake of the head or a pat on the arm.
- The tap out must always be respected. Stop means stop. No means no. Period. Even if the person is still laughing. I want my kids to know that when they say no, they should expect–and have every right to demand–that the person to whom they’re telling no stops whatever it is they’re doing. Likewise, they need to absorb that when someone tells them no, they must stop. No exceptions.
Tickling can be a deceptively tricky thing, which is to say it’s all light and fun except in those situations when it’s not. Sure, it can be — and often is — a totally healthy and straightforward way to play, but I will continue to be unapologetically overprotective of my kids when it comes to tickling. In other words, keep your wriggling fingers off my child.