To Tickle or Not To Tickle

That Is the Question

To Tickle or Not To Tickle That Is the Question

For centuries, the deepest thinkers – Aristotle, Darwin, Shylock-have puzzled over this silliest of human

acts. Robert R. Provine, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County says that

tickling is not an inexplicable physical tie, it’s central to who we are-and how we because who we are.

Tickle games are not unique to humans, they’re a part of our mammalian heritage.


When a baby senses a foreign hand lightly brushing his bare feet he is experiencing that there is himself.

Tickling is central to who we are because it is part of how we establish that there’s a “we” there. This

may be why too much or unwanted tickling is so viscerally frightening and overwhelming: (There’s the

sense that someone is invading your body and you can’t stop it.)


Tickling children is one of those customary kinds of play that is handed down from generation to

generation through our families. Tickling, as a form of play, despite good intentions, can hurt a child.

Some adults have admitted they cannot relax when others are in close proximity to them nor can they

sleep close to a trusted partner or are internally on guard any time there’s more than casual touching

between them and someone they love. When asked what they are afraid of, their memories go straight

to times when they were tickled as children and could not get the tickler to stop.


“But my child asks to be tickled!” When tickling has been one of the main options for being playfully

close in a family, children will ask for it. A four year old said “I really didn’t like it very much, but that is

the only way my mom would play with me”.


One way to transition from tickling to playful contact that allows the child to be in charge is to pretend

to tickle when tickling is requested. When my Dad would say Bzzzzzzzzz I would laugh my head off

before the buzzer finger would get to my tummy. He really did not even have to touch me after he did it

once – I just laughed like crazy. You can kiss your child’s toes and then chase her on your hands and

knees- she will laugh –just be careful she does not run into a wall. Children love to come close to you,

play games and to be playful.


The main thing that makes tickling a problem is that children may not be able to say when they want to

stop. Laughter is an automatic response to being touched by a tickler- it is not a response that the child

can opt out of.


Play creatively with your child- for instance you are the horse and your child is riding on your back, or

say I have a hundred hugs for you, or bury your head in his tummy.


In conclusion:

Respect each child

Let them be able to say “no” or “stop”

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