Don't Tickle Kids Without Their Permission

Photo: Singkham, Pexels

Tickling can be a fun way to bond with a kid — all that giggling and squealing is downright precious. If the kid likes it, that is. And surely they like it, right? After all, they’re laughing.

Hold up.

Why laughter doesn’t equal consent

Laughing is the body’s involuntary response to being tickled. I am someone who laughs every time I am tickled; I am also someone who vehemently hates to be tickled. Writer Claire Gillespie breaks down the science of it in this Washington Post article:

The body’s reaction to tickling is an involuntary reflex, in which light touch initiates a pathway in two brain areas, the somatosensory and anterior cingulate cortices, says Santosh Kesari, PhD, neurologist and neuroscientist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. The somatosensory cortex analyses touch and the anterior cingulate cortex perceives pleasure. But our response to the tickling sensation is affected by our emotional state, as well as our level of attention and any distractions, meaning not everybody finds it pleasurable.

Then how can you tell your child if actually enjoys and welcomes your tickling? By asking first. And not just once; every single time.

Always ask permission

We want our kids to grow up to be the sort of people who respect another person’s physical boundaries. No means no, stop means stop, and yes means you may proceed for the moment.

So it sends a bit of a mixed message if we, as adults they love and trust, touch them without permission and — worse — keep right on tickling even as they’re squealing for us to stop. Is it possible they’re saying “stop” as part of the game but they really want you to keep tickling? Sure, of course. Do we get to decide whether another person really wants you to stop? Ahhhh, that feels like the beginning of a slippery slope.

Teaching kids that they have autonomy over their own bodies starts with us. So, ask first, and then stop if they tell you to stop. If you think they really want you to keep going, simply ask, “Would you like more tickles?” Easy enough.

Give Kids Specific Language To Talk About Pleasure

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Stop other people from tickling your kid

Some people (yeah, I’m looking at you, older relatives) use tickling as a way to bond with kids. Maybe a child is feeling shy or overwhelmed or is simply in a crabby mood at the family barbecue and Grandpa wants to coax a smile. It very likely comes from love—and maybe from an uncertainty of how to otherwise connect with the kid — but it’s still not OK.

Come to their rescue, make it clear that you’re a family that asks for permission before tickling and then offer up a suggestion for another way to connect. That might sound something like this: “Honey, do you want to be tickled right now? No? OK. Hey, why don’t you tell Grandpa that knock-knock joke you told me in the car earlier?”

We’ve got some other great kid conversation-starters here:

How To Talk To Little Kids

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Some kids — I believe my son falls into this category — like the idea of being tickled more than the actual physical sensation. For these kids, a simple air-finger-wiggle that you “throw” at them can be just as hilarious and physically less intrusive.

Finally, if you’ve asked and they’ve given you the enthusiastic “yes!” by all means, tickle. Just remember to keep checking in.


Comments

    To hell with that. Surprise tickle attacks gave me some of my fondest childhood memories. I'm not saying you should tickle a kid who has told you to stop, or told you it makes them uncomfortable. But you know what would really ruin tickle games? "Would you like me to tickle you? Do you consent to tickling?"

    It makes it sound dirty and takes the spontaneity and lighthearted fun out of it.

    This is getting ridiculous. A good parent knows their child's limits and can tell the appropriate time to give a surprising tickle.

    Soon you'll need consent to change your infant's diaper or say your child's name or make eye contact. I hate that I was born to grow up in this deteriorating world.

    Ignore this advice, and tickle your own children.
    Its called spontaneous fun.

    If they then state they dont like it, you should stop, but not because of some bad advice on this site.

      This is exactly what I'm thinking also.

      Perhaps better advice is: pay attention to your child's actual response to being tickled, rather than focusing on what you as the tickler wish it to be.

      This notion that every action is serious enough to require repeated, explicit verbal consent it just insane. Is the average adult that awful at empathizing with a child that this is the only route to "safety"?

      Also embedded in this is the notion that a child understands exactly what is being asked, and what they enjoy. Both are ridiculously flawed ideas for very young children. If you have ever asked a child whether you can change their nappy, or whether they need to go to the toilet, you'll figure out pretty quickly that their responses are often ignorant of the future reality that occur as a result of this action.

    Yep, don't pick your children up without asking permission, because that's assault.

    Also, don't change your children's clothes or bathe them without permission, because that's sexual assault.

    Ridiculous.

    And when they don't want to eat their veggie, feed them mars bars

    Next they'll say, "Don't feed your children without their permission", and maybe even, "Don't birth your children without their permission". Why is the world turning into this "I must be politically correct at all times so as not to upset someone" place? Just bloody live life and stop being such snowflakes that can't take a little bit of criticism.

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