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.
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.
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:
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.