Actor Russell Brand recently said tickling kids should be banned because it “violates their space.” I disagree.
Now, I do see his point; sometimes tickling can be misused. But forbidding tickling completely is like saying sex should be illegal just because sometimes it happens in a harmful way. It isn’t the tickling (or the sex) that’s the problem—it’s the lack of consent.
So the more constructive approach is to focus on distinguishing the times when tickling becomes a problem from those when it’s enjoyable for all involved.
When Tickling Is Playful
Tickling can be fun. My kids and I had a blast with tickle-fights and other kinds of roughhousing when they were little, and sometimes even when they were teens. We laughed; we connected. There is no problem at all with that as long as everyone is having a good time.
Consensual tickling, like consensual hugs, kisses, and sex, is a way humans can take pleasure in our bodies while connecting with another person. This is good.
When Tickling Is Aggressive
But sometimes tickling is an aggressive act, done to make someone uncomfortable. You can probably remember being either a ticklish child who got tormented or tormenting another kid by tickling them. Or both.
If someone is being tickled by someone bigger or more powerful when they obviously don’t like it, that’s an abuse of power. So when I tickled my very-ticklish younger sister to make her squirm, that was mean and inappropriate of me, and my parents wisely made me stop when they saw it happening.
Aggressive tickling compares with sexual assault: Someone is touching someone else’s body in a way they don’t want to be touched. We need to teach kids that this is never okay. Tickling someone who hates it or who doesn’t want to be tickled right now is as wrong as hitting or pushing them. It’s not “just having fun,” it’s an attack.
When Adults Get Carried Away
Sometimes the person who’s being aggressive about tickling isn’t a kid, it’s a grown-up. A grandparent, aunt, uncle, or friend of the family may love teasing or roughhousing, even to the point of ignoring a child’s distress. You might need to step in.
Start in a gentle way, like “I think Ava’s done with that for now” or “I find Parker really doesn’t like to be tickled” or “Let’s do something else.”
If the adult persists, be a little more forceful. Maybe, “We’re trying to teach our kids about bodily autonomy, that each person gets to choose how they’re touched. I can see Chris is uncomfortable, so please stop the tickling.”
It’s possible the adult will argue with you. (Maybe, “I’m just having fun,” or “I can roughhouse with my grandkid if I like.”) This is a tough situation, because obviously you value your relationship with this person. But your child’s wellbeing comes first. They’ll see how you handle things, and it becomes part of their template for saying No (or giving in).
Be polite if you can—but be firm. “Well, it’s clear to me that Tyler isn’t having fun, so I’m going to insist you stop.” Or, “I’m sorry, but I feel very strongly about this.” If the situation is tense, defuse it by shifting in another direction (maybe, “Would anyone like a glass of iced tea?” or “Let’s get out a puzzle!”)
Tickling and Consent
As with sex, tickling becomes a problem when someone is not fully on board. That’s what makes tickling a fantastic opportunity for adults to teach kids about consent. Tickling is fun–unless or until it isn’t for someone. If someone wants to stop, it stops. The key is for adults to model respect by stopping immediately when someone says No or Stop, and for insisting that kids listen to their friends and siblings who say No.
Also like sex, tickling can involve gray areas. That makes it a wonderful opportunity to indirectly explore the gray areas your kids will experience in their eventual romantic lives.
Tickling helps you cover these important points about consent:
Everyone’s not the same. Some people like to be tickled. Others are more sensitive and always hate it. Kids shouldn’t assume that others will want to be touched the way they like to be. Everyone’s different, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Honoring someone’s No. If your child is the tickling aggressor, help them understand how uncomfortable the other child feels. Make clear that it’s never okay to touch anyone in a way they don’t like, even if it’s something like tickling that can also be fun. Tell them bigger and more powerful people have an obligation to be gentle and kind to smaller, less powerful people (including siblings).
There’s great value with being on the record, repeatedly, that you expect your kids to respect other people’s boundaries. Over time, they’ll internalize that message and later apply it in romantic relationships.
Building a strong No. If your child is on the receiving end of aggressive tickling, make sure they know they can say No to that and to any form of touch they don’t want. Coach them in ways to say No, including words (“Stop it,” “I don’t like that,” “Keep your hands to yourself”) and body language (like pushing their hand away or leaving the room). If the other person persists, their No should get louder and stronger, even yelling or getting adult help. They don’t owe another person physical interaction that they don’t want.
Different moods. A person can be in the mood for tickling sometimes but not other times. They may start off enjoying it and then want to stop, for any reason. They don’t have to be able to explain their reason; they just have to say No and that should be honored.
Mixed signals. Someone may give mixed signals, like saying Stop but continuing to laugh and tickle the other person. If you’re roughhousing with your kid and that happens, stop immediately and maybe talk about the mixed signals. For instance, “Oh, you want to stop? Okay. But I’m a little confused, because it seems like you’re still having fun.”
Later, explain how saying No has more impact when it’s not contradicted by positive signals. Encourage kids to be clear about their No in case they’re ever being touched by someone who doesn’t listen as well as they should. Explain to kids that when signals are mixed, the No trumps. Touch should happen only when a person’s words and body language both say Yes.
Keeping the Pleasure
I worry sometimes that we’ve gotten so focused on consent that some people are wary of any kind of touch. That’s a shame. We humans are mammals; we’re built for connection with other people, including physical connection. Hugs, kisses, roughhousing, tickling, and sex are often wonderful things. We want them in our lives. Our physical interactions should be mutually agreed-to and mutually enjoyable…and then they can be really enjoyable.
By all means pay attention to consent; just don’t eliminate pleasurable touch in the process.