Claire Gillespie

Special to The Washington Post

I remember the moment I realized how much my daughter hates being tickled. At 6, she was becoming more articulate by the day, her clear enunciation and sophisticated vocabulary leaving her 5-year-old self in the dust. But that day, she said only one word, in response to the underarm tickling of a well-meaning relative. “Stop,” she said.

It wasn’t the first time she’d been tickled, and it wasn’t the first time she’d said “Stop.” But that day, I just happened to glance up and catch my daughter’s eye. I saw panic.

Until that point, I was like millions of parents who think tickling is synonymous with fun. And it is fun, for lots of people. It’s also believed to have great benefits as a way for humans to create and strengthen social bonds. In 1872, Charles Darwin wrote about the way chimpanzee babies show great delight when they are tickled, and suggested that tickling may be a way for humans to create humor, especially in babies and small children who aren’t old enough to understand jokes.

The body’s reaction to tickling is an involuntary reflex, in which light touch initiates a pathway in two brain areas, the somatosensory and anterior cingulate cortices, says Santosh Kesari, neurologist and neuroscientist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. The somatosensory cortex analyzes touch and the anterior cingulate cortex perceives pleasure. But our response to the tickling sensation is affected by our emotional state, as well as our level of attention and any distractions, meaning not everybody finds it pleasurable. My daughter, and many others people, don’t want to be tickled. Ever.

Plenty of research into tickling is out there, offering various theories as to why some people hate being tickled. An aversion to tickling has been linked to more sensitive reflexes and a greater propensity for anxiety. One study found that people who reported greater levels of ticklishness were also more likely to laugh and smile. (It also found that ticklish people were more likely to blush, get goose bumps and cry — all responses Darwin saw as elements of genuine laughter.) This certainly rings true for my daughter, the smiliest, giggliest, most fun-loving girl I know — she certainly has plenty of pleasure in her life without the tickle factor.

I’m not sure I’d go as far as English comedian Russell Brand and threaten to punch anyone who tried to tickle my daughter, but I do agree with him when he says kids shouldn’t be tickled until they’re old enough to decide whether they like it. Brand’s comments caused an almighty ruckus. I had no idea how many people see tickling another person as one of their basic human rights. Or at least that’s the impression they gave when they blasted Brand for “losing his marbles” and decided that he must have “had a sad childhood.”

Have I missed something? Is pinning our kids to the floor and wiggling our fingertips about in their armpits and ribs the only way we can have fun with them? Is a tickle-free childhood a miserable existence?

Psychologist Stephen Glicksman of Yeshiva University agrees that tickling children in play is a universal activity that seems to be wired into our DNA. “Sometimes, kids saying ‘stop’ is part of the game,” he says. “At the same time, we live in a world where we do need to teach our children to protect themselves from unwanted touching, and simply teaching kids not to talk to strangers is not going to cut it.”

Glicksman’s advice is simple: If you’re tickling a child who then says “stop,” you stop. “You can then ask, ‘Should I do it again?’ and see what the response is, because while tickling might be an innocent, universally engaged-in, neurologically based bonding activity, doing so after being told not to is a red flag,” he says.

Glicksman doesn’t necessarily agree with Brand — “I think he might be overreacting,” he says — but he does suggest that the final word on tickling should be our children’s. “If someone insists on tickling a child after either the child or the parents have said “stop,” that’s inappropriate and suspicious.”

Personally, I’d go further. I’m with Brand when he says that tickling children without getting their consent is an invasion of their personal space and autonomy. Social worker and sex therapist Stefani Goerlich agrees. “Tickling, like any other body-to-body activity, requires the consent of both parties,” she says. “The thing that can make tickling traumatic for a child is that often adults confuse laughter as an involuntary physical response to tickling, with enjoyment or consent. They hear laughter and assume enjoyment. This violates consent and bodily autonomy and can leave anyone — adult or child — feeling scared, overwhelmed and even violated.”

“Giving our children control over their bodies, and the right to say no — even to a parent or other perceived authority figure — does more than just show them respect,” says Goerlich, who has spent several years working as a sexual assault response advocate for pediatric patients. “It gives them the tools and the empowerment necessary to enforce their boundaries and limits in other settings which might not be so benign. ‘You said all done, so I’m stopping right now’ is one of the most powerful lessons parents can teach their children.”

Sending our kids the message that they don’t have autonomy over their bodies goes against everything we should be teaching them about consent. I don’t see raising my children with respect for their boundaries as a choice; it’s one of my fundamental responsibilities as a parent. This means I won’t let anything happen that I know makes my daughter feel uncomfortable. That’s not “losing my marbles”; it’s showing her that I hear — and value — what she says.

Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer in Glasgow, Scotland.

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