Tickling and consent

I hated being tickled as a kid (and as an adult now!), as I’m sure many others do. I always lived by the belief that you shouldn’t really tickle kids. In all my interactions with toddlers and elementary aged kids, I tended to follow that rule.

But A seems to love being tickled. And I don’t mean, ‘he laughs when we tickle him so that shows us he loves it.’ Everyone laughs when they get tickled, whether they like it or not. It’s an uncontrollable reaction. When I say A loves getting tickled, I mean he ASKS to be tickled. With a cute little grin as he anticipates it, he says ‘more tickle? More tickle?’.

So given his enjoyment of it, we do tickle A—but only in some circumstances. I’m not the first to write about this, and I don’t pretend this is my idea. But I will reiterate it in brief and clear terms: tickling can help introduce children to the idea of consent. In the current reckoning of rape culture going on (#metoo), teaching my son what consent is from an early age is important. Of course, I’m not going to talk about sex and rape to my one and half year old, but I can teach him that when someone doesn’t want to be touched (or tickled), you stop.

This goes two ways during our tickle-times. First, I proactively ask him if he wants to be tickled before I start. Second, if he says ‘no’ or ‘stop’, then I stop immediately. Both actions show him that he has control over what happens to his body and that I will respect those boundaries. I am modeling for him behavior that I expect from him.

I think the major criticism of this is that it takes the organic playfulness out of tickling. For a kid who—at least most of the time—wants to be tickled, stopping to ask before you start EVERY time might seem like a lot. It doesn’t have to be an overly serious conversation though. Last night, I just said ‘can I tickle you?’ and he grinned and said ‘Yeah’ in that adorable way that he does. So, I tickled him. And we played. And maybe, unconsciously, he filed away in his mind something about consent.

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