Why Tickling Kids Is Not Okay

"Tickle me, Mama... pleeeeease," my five-year-old son pleads, as he pokes his head from beneath his Pikachu covers. It's an ungodly hour of the morning and, looking into his big brown eyes — an equal mixture of mischief and innocence — I'm tempted to give in to his giggly demands. Yet, something holds me back.

Here's the thing: I'm not what you would classify as a helicopter parent. If you had to put a label on it, I'm more of a free range mom. I try not to sweat the small stuff or worry too much about things I can't control. But that's precisely where tickling comes in. This is something I can control... to an extent. And in today's society, teaching our kids about things like consent and body autonomy — which are intrinsically linked to tickling — is a big deal.

Times have changed, and we know better

You may be thinking, "I bet your parents tickled you, and you didn't have a problem with it then." And, hey, you've got a point. However, my parents also carted me around in the backseat of a station wagon without working seat belts. My grandparents were allowed to start smoking before they could even drive. Times change. We live and learn.

Boundaries have been crossed for generations. The difference is, these days we know better because we know a lot. As a generation, we are very well informed, and we have access to more information than ever before — some of which isn't so pleasant. But ignoring it doesn't make it any less true.

What I continue to learn (and it's a hard lesson) is that there are many nuances to consent, as evidenced by the broad conversations that have emerged following the viral #MeToo campaign. I'm in no way saying that tickling your own kids is equivalent to abuse, but teaching body autonomy has to start somewhere.

Tickling is an expression of dominance

Tickling unequivocally evokes themes of power. "A child can be transformed from laughter into tears by going the tiniest bit too far with tickling, raising the question of whether tickling is an expression of dominance," Dr. Richard Alexander, the Hubbell professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, told The New York Times. He likens laughing while being tickled to a familiar submissive behavior among animals, saying, "When animals are subordinate they do a smiling, submissive grin, which may be related to our smiling."

Reinforcing this notion is the fact that tickling is also cited on BDSM sites as an ideal form of S&M due to traits like "loss of control," "humiliation," "struggling," and more. When adults are tickling kids all in good fun, there certainly isn't a conscious harmful intention, but that doesn't mean there can't be a harmful result.

Tickle torture has a brutal history

Another factor to consider is whether or not tickling can cause a person physical pain. It's easy to get carried away when you're tickling someone — because it feels good to hear the other person's squeals of delight. It feels like you're doing something innately good. But if we look at how tickling was used historically, it gets super confusing.

Throughout history, tickling was reportedly used as a form of torture. According to Cabinet magazine, there are instances where tickling has even led to fatal asphyxiation. Granted, I seriously doubt that someone can literally be tickled to death when the intention is all in good fun. However, there is something to be said about an activity with so much potential for unpleasantness that it had been historically turned into something torturous.

They may not be physically able to tell you to stop

One of my most enduring childhood memories is when my cousin and brother held me upside down over the edge of the living room sofa, and tickled me until I felt certain my eyeballs were going to pop right out of the sockets. Of course, I couldn't express this profound fear in that moment — I was laughing so hard, I could hardly inhale. But it wasn't happy laughter.

When a child is tickled without permission, that takes away their agency — they weren't given an option to share whether or not they like being tickled to begin with. Plus, even if my son begs me to tickle him, the issue remains: Should he change his mind after I start, he may not be able to tell me to stop between his fits of uncontrollable laughter. We've all been tickled to the point we feel like we can't breathe, much less speak, right?

Just because a child is laughing doesn't mean they are enjoying it

If you've ever spoken to someone who hates being tickled, they'll likely tell you that despite their aversion, they can't help laughing while being tickled. What's up with that?

That's precisely the question a 1997 study out of the University of California at San Diego set out to explore. Armed with tickle machines and old recordings of Saturday Night Live, scientists found that tickling doesn't create the same pleasurable feeling you get when laugh at a funny joke — it simply creates the outward appearance of one by inducing reflexive laughter.

So, what does this have to do with tickling a child? Kind of everything. Consent is already difficult concept to teach a child — the reflexive laughter that accompanies tickling further confuses things, making it difficult for both parents and children to assess enjoyment.

I wouldn't want anyone doing it to me

Being tickled makes me uncomfortable. I especially don't think it's appropriate for anyone to spring a tickle on someone who is unsuspecting. Why would I be okay with anyone doing something to my child that I wouldn't want done to me?

It suggests a sense of entitlement that makes me wary. I would compare it to unsolicited behavior like someone rubbing my shoulders because I "look tense," playing with my hair without permission, or, my personal pet peeve, rubbing my round belly when I'm pregnant. My body, my rules. Why shouldn't kids get the same courtesy?

Some adults have deep trust issues due to childhood tickling

Dr. Alexander told The New York Times that tickling against someone's will can actually cause "great mental pain." Sure, it may seem hyperbolic until, that is, you come across someone who literally flinches at the mention of tickling. I'd never personally known anyone like that until I met my husband, who has an involuntary fight-or-flight-like response if anyone gets near his feet.

He isn't the only one with this kind of hang-up. Patty Wipfler, parenting expert, founder and director of the Hand in Hand organization, cites tickling as a common root of patient issues. She wrote: "In my many years of listening to adults talk about the emotional challenges of their lives as children, tickling comes up again and again as an experience that has been hurtful."

Wipfler continued, "I've listened to a number of adults who can't relax when others are in close proximity to them. They can't sleep close to a trusted partner, for instance, or are internally on guard any time there's more than casual touching between them and someone they love."

There are other ways to elicit LOLs

Don't get me wrong I understand there is a difference between a parent tickling their child in a safe, loving environment, and that child being tickled in a random public setting by a veritable stranger. But as parents, we set the precedent. I want my kids to understand that everyone, including their parents, should ask before touching them or making decisions that affect their bodies.

There are so many other less controversial ways to bond with a baby and make them laugh. A cursory Google search on the subject will yield countless suggestions. From my personal and admittedly limited experience as the mother of two young children, it doesn't take much to elicit hysterical laughter from kids. Slapstick humor, potty humor (insert facepalm here), and funny faces typically do the trick in our household.

And, if all else fails, those jokes on the back of Laffy Taffy wrappers are always a hit with the under-10 crowd. Oh, who am I kidding, those wrappers make me laugh just as hard as my kids.

How do you explain consent to kids?

Trust me when I say: I fail to understand my five-year-old's logic roughly 87 percent of the time. So when I try to explain a foreign concept like consent, and why he needs to give it (or get it) before an activity he finds as fun as tickling, well, I expect there to be a communication barrier. The hard truth, as evidenced by recent headlines, is that consent is a complex concept even for adults. This is why it's important to start the conversation with kids early — in an age-appropriate way, of course. It's a common misconception, but consent is not just about sex

So how exactly can we teach consent to kids? You can start by helping them recognize others' consent (i.e. pointing out other people's body language and respecting personal boundaries) and valuing their own consent (i.e. not making them hug or kiss anyone if they don't want to). The earlier we help them understand that their bodies are their own, the better. However, tickling often starts at birth, before a child can fully express their wants and needs — suggesting the conversation about tickling needs to evolve among adults.