How Tickling Can Teach Consent

So kids learn how to say no before they needto.

How Tickling Can Teach Consent

Duke Harten

Getty Images/iStock

So kids learn how to say ‘no’ before they need to.

Several years ago, I was tickling my nieces when one of them asked me to stop. I kept going. Later, my older sister took me aside and explained gently that when her daughters ask me to stop doing something, I have to stop doing it.

My immediate reaction was to get defensive. My own aunts and uncles used to tickle me all the time — why should I be robbed of picking on the little kids? This seemed, frankly, like some overprotective hippie nonsense.

But then I holstered my butt-hurt and gave it some thought. I realized she was right. If a child asks you to stop touching — even friendly, harmless touching — the only way to respond as an adult is to obey that child’s request. It teaches children that they’re in charge of their own bodies.

Unwelcome physical contact between an adult and child doesn’t have to come in the form of physical or sexual abuse. It can be as simple as a roughhousing uncle or a hug-happy grandma. If we don’t teach our kids to reject friendly but unwanted physical advances, how do we expect them to cope with a more malicious scenario? How can we expect confidence and agency from a girl who’s been raised to submit her body to the whims of those more socially or physically powerful than she?

In 2015, Katia Hetter wrote a now-famous piece for CNN about this very issue. In “I don’t own my child’s body,” Hetter expresses the same sentiment my sister did: Pressuring a child to please others with his or her body is dangerous and wrong. Hetter writes about the decision to free her daughter from such taxing obligations as kissing Grandma, and the subsequent “kiss strikes” that freedom has incurred:

“She’s 7, and she’s been holding these wildcat strikes since she was 3 or 4. Her parents can get a hug or a kiss, but many people who know her cannot, at least not all the time. And I won’t make her,” Hetter writes.

“I figure her body is actually hers, not mine. It doesn’t belong to her parents, uncles and aunts, school teachers or soccer coach. While she must treat people with respect, she doesn’t have to offer physical affection to please them. And the earlier she learns ownership of herself and responsibility for her body, the better for her.”

The emphasis there is mine. Hetter’s child — anybody’s child — should never have to offer physical affection to please an adult. This is true when they’re children, and it remains true into adulthood. Sadly, it’s a lesson that takes many young men and women far too long to learn.

People like my sister will read this article and nod along, murmuring assent and praise. “He gets it,” they’ll say. That’s not the point. I’m not looking for choir approval.

No — my point is to try cracking the Kevlar shell of those adults who are rolling their eyes and thinking: Now the liberals are saying their kids don’t have to hug Grandma. What next? I admit it’s easy to think this way. After all, I grew up getting kisses from whiskered relatives who smelled of pea soup, and I turned out all right. Maybe the kids should suck it up and give their grandparents a kiss.

That’s what PJ Media’s Walter Hudson thinks, at least. In his article “Now There Are Calls for Consent Before Kids Receive Hugs and Kisses from Grandma,” he argues that teaching children consent violates the very premise of childhood:

“From where does this notion of a child’s consent arise? A child’s entire life proceeds without his consent, and often in direct contradiction to his expressed will. That’s a defining aspect of childhood,” Hudson writes.

“Aside from physical characteristics, the ability to live by consent is the very thing which distinguishes adults from children. The whole point of parenting is to substitute the guardian’s judgment for the child’s, to override consent on a regular basis.”

Never mind the article’s tone, which drips with disdain for the mothers who dare teach their children to exercise agency. Let’s focus on Hudson’s argument, which posits that “the whole point” of parenting is to “override consent on a regular basis.”

He dismisses the notion of consent under the flimsy argument that if parents didn’t override their children, kids wouldn’t buckle up, eat veggies, or attend school. They might not want to visit Grandma, period.

Hudson then strings together a few curious and alarming statements. He refers to an “everything-is-rape culture” perpetrated by “radical leftists” who are too gung-ho on teaching children, teens, and grownups how to verbalize their willingness to be touched. Then, this:

“A child surely owns her body, but her parent manages it. That’s what custodianship means. That’s why parents hold authority over everything from what their child eats to when they go to bed. Like any ward, the child’s power to consent has been entrusted to their guardian.”

Look, Mr. Hudson: If a child refuses vegetables, she lacks vital nutrients. If she doesn’t buckle up, she flies through the windshield. If she skips school, she breaks the law and sacrifices an education. If she stays up late, her body misses its required sleep. That’s why parents hold authority over children, because kids aren’t qualified to make the safest and healthiest choices. You know what they are qualified to do, Mr. Hudson? Say no to unwanted touching. In fact, unlike your other examples, refusing an unwanted touch has only positive consequences, i.e. learning how to wield their own bodies safely.

Hudson has a remarkable sign-off in his article. He returns to Hetter’s Grandma example.

“Presumably, as an adult, if your grandmother wanted a kiss, you would give it to her. Presumably, you love your grandmother. Presumably, you want her to be happy. Presumably, you delight in her affection. So give her the damn kiss. Right?”

No! Not even close.

There are two major problems with this argument:

  1. As Hetter said, “wanting someone to be happy” is not a reason to submit to touch.
  2. Presuming that a child “delights in someone’s affection” even as they try to reject it is just bonkers.

I stopped tickling the girls altogether, for a while. They remained wary — Uncle Duke was, after all, known to tickle. But time passed and trust grew. They learned that I would stop dangling them upside down if they asked. That I would request permission before planting a smooch on their foreheads. They enjoyed the thrill of being chased, the threat of being tickled, but knew I wouldn’t go through with it if they said not to.

Together, we learned the boundaries between fun play and unpleasant play. We developed a physical shorthand that has, I hoped, made me someone they trust. No longer do they flee behind their parents’ legs when I give chase. Now they square off against me, knowing that what comes next is something welcome, not something inflicted.