Tickling: No Laughing Matter

This morning, I witnessed my child being tickled, and then after he hit the person who was tickling him, he was asked, “Why did you do that? I was only tickling you.” After the event ended, I set a boundary within our family to end tickling altogether.

Tickling is a complicated experience, so let’s talk about it.

  • When we are tickled by another person, that person generally has a position of power over us.
  • Tickling usually happens between a small person and someone much larger (and older).
  • We usually laugh while it’s happening.
  • It’s generally an uncomfortable experience, despite the laughter.
  • When we say, “Stop,” people frequently don’t, because the laughter suggests that we actually enjoy it.

I’ve had to step in before when someone was tickling my son to say, “He said, stop, so please listen to him.”

Today’s experience caused me to think about what I’m trying to do in raising my son and how tickling fits in. Let’s start by saying that tickling someone else is VERY enticing. I mean, we want to make cute small people giggle uncontrollably, and that’s a big pull. The thing is that enough people tell us to stop for us to get the message that we don’t really like being tickled. My own history of being tickled caused me to no longer feel ticklish, it was so uncomfortable. And, in spite of the message being there, we still do it.

With all this, I try hard to avoid the urge to tickle my son, whose intense laughter sends thrills through my body. I want him to laugh—hard and often. And my fingers get that tickly itch, and I work to quell it.

Let’s think about why we may want to stop tickling our children.

I’m going to get deep here. We live in a rape culture. This kind of society functions on the opposite principles of bodily autonomy—it says that certain bodies are for me to dominate. These bodies may be young and small, female, with darker skin, having alternative sexual identities, or with identified or unidentified disabilities or mental illness. This also happens to men and boys, as people sometimes forget. Rape culture seeks to control these bodies and does so through physical threat and violence. Sometimes, this threat appears benign, as with tickling, a childish game. When we think about it, tickling is not something that children innately do with each other—it is taught.

Wow. Where did that come from? How does rape culture fit in with tickling?

Well, think about it. We start tickling young children, and we enjoy their laughter. Many of us also enjoy being able to control the situation where we get to choose when this action ends, which is often after many protestations and requests for the tickling to stop. I have witnessed the enjoyment of domination that I mention here. Have you?

Whether the child is feminine, masculine, or as yet undefined, there are specific messages that are relayed.

  • I don’t have control over what happens to my body.
  • “No” doesn’t mean “no”; “stop doesn’t mean “stop.”
  • I can make decisions about what happens to another person’s body.
  • I don’t have to listen when someone else says “no.”
  • Others might not listen when I say “no” or “stop,” and that’s okay.
  • I don’t think I enjoyed that, but I’m not sure because the other person said it wasn’t a big deal and suggested that I enjoyed it because I was laughing—did I actually enjoy it? I must have. I doubt my own truth.

Do any of these messages sound familiar?

Personally, I want to live in a compassionate society. One where people’s bodily autonomy is respected and where people don’t use their position of real or perceived power against anyone else. I believe this starts in my home. There are a lot things that I can do to help change the system of oppression and suppression that we live in, where some bodies are harmed and killed every day, because we are given messages from a very young age in our own microcosm that we don’t own our body and that others may do with our body as they see fit.

When I advocate for my son in this way in our home, there are several things happening.

  • I teach both the children in my home that they have worth.
  • I model advocacy of self and others.
  • I help myself to change my own behaviors that have been ingrained since childhood.
  • I teach that vulnerability is okay when I share about what I struggle with.
  • I illustrate the importance of questioning norms that we are expected to blindly follow.

I hope that we’re able to look at some of our behaviors more critically, especially the ones that seem benign at a glance and think about how they contribute to society as a whole. Every one of us is charged with making our society what it is, both positively and negatively. It is on us to determine our impact. The question of whether to tickle could be a great place to start.