Beware: Tickling isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
I was on the phone with my friend Elizabeth when I heard her 9-month old daughter Poppy screeching in the background.
“Ooooh!” I winced. “Is Poppy okay?”
“She’s not crying. She’s laughing!” Elizabeth explained. “Greg’s playing Tickle Monster with her.”
Oh, no! Not Tickle Monster! I thought, my heart racing. “Are you sure she loves it?” I asked gingerly.
“Yes! Why?” she replied in a way that said, This better be good.
“Well,” I started, “just because a baby’s laughing doesn’t mean they’re necessarily enjoying…”
“Are you serious? Believe me, she loves being tickled,” she said. “Anyway, I gotta get going.”
I was sorry I’d said something, but at the same time I thought, How could I not have? You can’t tickle a helpless baby, for God’s sake!
Like many people, Greg and Elizabeth took Poppy’s giggles at face value. That’s the problem with tickling. It causes the same physiological reactions as humor — i.e., laughter, goose bumps, and convulsive muscle contractions — which means we can look like we’re having the time of our lives while suffering, sometimes greatly.
In the New York Times article “Anatomy of a Tickle Is Serious Business at the Research Lab,” evolutionary biologist Richard Alexander explains, “[T]icklish laughter is not the happy phenomenon that many have assumed it to be […] A child can be transformed from laughter into tears by going the tiniest bit too far […] [Tickling] does not create a pleasurable feeling — just the outward appearance of one.”
Historically, many cultures capitalized on tickling’s ability to cause pain. For instance, during the Han Dynasty, Chinese tickle torture was the punishment of choice for nobility because it caused sufficient suffering while leaving no marks. And in Ancient Rome, offenders were tied up, their feet soaked in salt, and then goats would have at them with their tongues. More recently, I read a harrowing account of a Nazi torturing a Jewish prisoner by tickling him with a feather.
But today, it seems we’ve somehow managed to deceive ourselves into thinking tickling doesn’t have a dark side. Yet, I’ve heard plenty of personal accounts from people who shared with me their traumatic childhood experiences:
“I hated and feared being tickled as a child and still do. It reminds me of gasping for my breath while being suffocated and unable to communicate.”
“My mother always tickled me even if I said stop. It was so frustrating because I wanted to show her that I was having fun with her, but I felt powerless and controlled.”
“I loved being tickled to a point, but several people would ignore my clear requests to stop. Gasping and pinned, it would often end in a panic attack for me that left me crying and running away to calls of ‘I didn’t hurt you! Don’t be such a baby!’”
“Even though I’d yell ‘Stop!’ my dad just never got that I meant it. So, finally when I was 13, while struggling, I broke his finger! That’s when his tickling finally ended for good.”
I wonder if parents routinely ignore their children’s pleas to stop because they’re genuinely deceived by their kids’ laughter or if they’re willfully duped. It seems as if we’ve come to use tickling like it’s a magic button that will change our kids’ moods or the way they’re feeling about us, for the better.
I remember being in a room with my daughter and a bunch of her 5-year-old friends. They were all sitting around a table intently coloring when one of the dads walked in. No one noticed. So he came up behind his daughter and wiggled his fingers in her armpit. Grimacing, she pulled away. I’m working! she seemed to be saying. Nonetheless, he did it again.
“Stop it!” she groaned.
“What? Relax!” he said defensively. “I’m just tickling you. Be nice.”
My guess is that he was searching for a sign that his daughter was happy to see him. And it seems as if his daughter was as happy about the way he went about it as I would be if I was working at my computer and someone randomly started tickling me. Annoying, at best!
I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that tickling is one of the means used by sexual predators to groom their victims. Psychotherapist Tracy Lamperti explains how sexual predators do this:
“Gateways to the victim, […] [are] successive, thought-out strategies used by a perpetrator with the victim and/or the family in order to facilitate their being able to carry out the acts of sexual abuse on the child with the highest probability of being able to do it without getting caught. While not all adults who tickle children are paving the way to sexually abuse them, tickling is a good example of the grooming process. When trust can be won over and defenses can be disarmed, the offender is then able to have their way with the child. With the example of tickling, the perpetrator is able to publicly and/or privately tickle just a little bit. The act is carried out cheerfully and playfully. In this ‘controlled experiment’ the offender is able to see if anyone is going to set a limit, ‘Oh, Uncle John, we have a no tickling rule in our family. Stop tickling Sam.’”
Of course, no one wants to think about this. But every time we respect our child’s “No” or “Stop!”, whether they’ve said it explicitly or via their body language, we help them learn that it’s their body and their right to decide what happens to it. This will serve them well when they are dating.
As the great psychologist Alice Miller wrote, “If children have been accustomed from the start to having their world respected, they will have no trouble later in life recognizing disrespect […] and will rebel against it on their own.”
Am I saying never tickle your kids? No! I know some kids love it. I think we can tickle responsibly. Here are my guidelines:
1. If a child is too young to talk, don’t tickle them. Better safe than sorry.
2. Before tickling, ask. While it takes away the element of surprise, you can be playful about it.
3. Come up with a signal that means “Stop” if they’re laughing too hard to speak.
Excerpted from ParentSpeak: What’s Wrong with How We Talk to Our Children–and What to Say Instead (Workman Publishing). Copyright © 2016.