Last weekend I experienced one of my proudest parenting moments to date. At a friend’s birthday party, an adult guest was tickling my 2.5 year old kiddo. When my kiddo said “stop” the tickler did not stop. Frustrated, my child called out loudly, “When someone says stop, you stop!” The adult recoiled in a mixture of shock and shame. Inwardly, I beamed with pride. I had just witnessed my 2.5 year old child explain the basic concept of consent to an adult.
I’m a professional sex educator, so teaching consent and communication skills to my own child is something I take very seriously. Yet, I must admit that I felt a bit clueless about how to begin. When it comes to kindergarten through twelfth grade students, I’ve got dozens of lessons, strategies, and activities—but for a toddler? There aren’t many resources available. The internet abounds in articles emphasizing the importance of teaching consent but aside from assuring your baby that they won’t be forced to hug and kiss their scary aunt Vilma, there are few recommendations about how to begin.
Consent and body autonomy are tough issues to tackle with toddlers. Diapers? Car seats? Clothing? If your kid is anything like mine, they would rather forgo all of the above, but alas, these are non-negotiables in our modern world. I often felt conflicted about explaining “your body belongs to you” in one breath and then forcing him into his car seat while he battled me with all his might. I struggled with how to empower my child to identify and (perhaps more importantly) communicate his boundaries and respect the boundaries of others in a way that felt authentic, age-appropriate, and meaningful. Then we stumbled into the beloved activity of tickling.
Tickling—perhaps the most quintessential toddler/adult game—is almost always an invitation to test or violate boundaries. Without fail, the person being tickled will say “stop” and the tickler will often respond with something like “really?” or “you want me to stop?” and then continue their joyful torture. We are almost taught to delight in the act of ignoring others’ clearly articulated physical boundaries. Though I love a good game of tickle as much as the next guy, the way it’s generally played is problematic.
On the other hand, tickling has the potential to be the perfect opportunity to teach consent. Tickling is a physical activity during which the distinction between pleasure and discomfort can be blurry; it requires individuals to identify their own boundaries and negotiate those boundaries in a distracting environment, one in which they often face pressure to please others who are older and more powerful than themselves, and where communication must be immediate, clear, and respected. It’s also a relatively safe environment, full of joy and affection. In other words, its conditions so beautifully mimic more complex and mature interactions, but create ample opportunity for safe practice. When it comes to consent, practice is key.
In health education, we talk about the importance of learning “skills.” When one possesses skills related to consent, that means they have practiced giving and requesting consent. They have hands-on experience that provides them with confidence that when faced with a challenging situation, they know exactly how they will handle it because they have already negotiated those conditions in a safe and supportive environment. Skills are essential when it comes to health education, and tickling is an excellent way to practice these skills.
Here’s how it works:
1. Ask your child if you can tickle them.
2. If they say yes, tickle your child and when they say stop, stop.
3. At this time I also say, “when (insert child’s name here) says stop, Mama stops.”
4. Repeat the process above OR If your child wants to tickle you, let them.
5. When you want them to stop, say ”stop.” Then follow your “stop” with, “when Mama says stop, (child’s name) stops.”
6. Repeat over and over again.
Introducing consent in no way makes tickling less fun, it just ensures that feelings are articulated and respected. Creating a solid expectation for communication and consent now means they will carry those expectations into their intimate and physical relationships later on. Small exercises like these can go a long way in preparing our little people for big, satisfying and healthy relationships as they grow.
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