I grew up in the eighties in a family that required unquestioning respect of parents and elders. I learned that my opinions and preferences didn’t matter, and it was easiest for everyone if I was a good girl.
When family tickled me, I was expected to be polite. Even though I wanted to claw at their eyes, I kept my fingernails tucked into my palms while trying to squirm free. Everyone else seemed to enjoy it and I would ruin the fun with anything other than giggles and a cunning escape.
I know many children like tickling and most adults have happy memories associated with it. When goaded by my kids, I have even played with them this way. The difference is that my boys have a choice; I didn’t.
“Tickling can deepen feelings of love and attachment for both the child and the parent,” says Colleen Cira, psychologist and founder of The Cira Center for Behavior Health in Chicago. But continuing when the child wants to stop can cause distress. “The negative effects come in when we're not letting children set healthy boundaries.”
Charles Darwin hypothesized, “the mind must be in a pleasurable condition” to induce laughter. However, a study conducted by University of California researchers concluded that tickling can elicit a variety of reactions depending on the circumstances. It also found that ticklish laughter is not necessarily indicative of pleasure and is likely an involuntary reflex.
My dad grew up with only brothers and didn’t know how to relate to me or my younger sister. When he did engage with us, it was usually in physical play. I knew he meant well. His tickling was never inappropriate, only unwanted. He was trying to connect to the daughters he couldn’t talk to. The problem was that he had interpreted my laughter as enjoyment and my pleas for him to stop as a part of the game.
As a trauma expert and mother of two, Cira cautions, “ignoring children’s boundaries, may inadvertently teach them that their bodies belong to adults or people who are bigger or have more power.”
Even nonverbal children can communicate whether they are enjoying certain types of play or not. “A fun way to teach your littles about consent is to tickle and then the second they say ‘stop’ or ‘no’, you immediately stop, even if you think they don’t really want you to," says Cira. "And when they start to act like they want you to start tickling them again, tell them they have to say it and ask aloud, ‘Mommy, will you tickle me again?’ Only then, when they enthusiastically consent, do you tickle. And the second they ask you to stop, you do. Every. Time.”
A pained expression, trying to get away, or avoiding eye contact are often indicators they are not having fun.
Tickling may seem harmless, but it has a vile history. Torture by tickling was used during the Han Dynasty in China, in ancient Rome and Japan, and by World War II, Nazis had also adopted the tactic. It was sometimes employed as a form of punishment that didn’t bruise or damage the skin. There are documented cases in which unrelenting tickling has resulted in death.
My husband is a handsy guy who loves to make me laugh. When we started going out, I told him tickling was a deal-breaker. Though he was respectful during our dating years, since we’ve been married, he has tested me on occasion to see if I still feel the same way.
He is always met with the same response. “No! I don’t like it!” I shout, my voice stern, eyes humourless. It doesn’t matter that I adore my husband or that his intentions are playful. When he crosses my well-drawn line, I feel violated. As a parent, I never want to be responsible for making a child feel that way.
In her memoir, Hunger, Roxane Gay asks, “Why do we view the boundaries people create for themselves as challenges? Why do we see someone setting a limit and then try to push?” Is it a flaw of human nature? A product of evolution? Or are we simply unable to see past our own biases? What I do know is even though it upsets me when others question my limits, I am guilty of this behaviour.
I remind my family and occasionally myself, “We respect each other’s bodies and wishes.” I want my boys to revere the words no and stop. Not only as red flags when regarding others, but as perimeter markers for themselves as well. By respecting their wishes, I’m teaching them that their bodies belong to them, their feelings matter. I want my kids to have the freedom and confidence to say no to unwelcome touching by anyone, anytime, anywhere.