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I have a 5-year-old girl. Sometimes, she enjoys tickle play; for instance, she will purposely say something a bit naughty/silly, while I am teaching her the piano or reading to her, and I will tickle her as a "punishment".

I discovered that a core part of making tickle play more fun is teasing. In other words, I will pretend to not tickle her, and then I will suddenly tickle her a lot. In my (perhaps uneducated) opinion, there's a corresponding type of invitation on her part, where sometimes she will says "Stop", but she may actually mean "Continue". There have been times when she is not in the mood for tickling, or the tickles are too much; in such situations she gets angry or sends other nonverbal signals which give me the clear message that it's not the right time for tickles.

Recently, my wife was furious at me when she witnessed us engaged in tickle play. I was saying something like, "I am not tickling you", and then suddenly start tickling her briefly. My wife was angry because she feels that it is critical for our daughter to learn "No means No!", and also for her older siblings to understand this concept. She brought up the point of the risk that our kids may encounter sexual predators who might gaslight them by saying things such as, "You enjoy being touched."

I feel quite confused because I think there is some truth in what my wife says. However, I can't imagine that tickle play makes sense if I have to ask my kid at every moment, "Do you want a tickle now?" That would seem too structured. I feel like there is some value in me learning to read her cues, and her learning how to communicate when "Stop" means "Stop", and when "Stop" means "Continue".

How should I reconcile the concept of "no means no" / "Stop means Stop" when I tease my 5-year-old during tickle play?

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    Maybe just always stop when she says "stop", regardless of any non-verbal cues? This would be erring on the safe side, and hopefully she would then learn not to say "stop" unless she means it, which might be better all around.
    – Neal Young
    Feb 15 at 17:18
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    After reading the answers and thinking some more, I think the problem is that "no means no" is actually not correct on an abstract level. In any sexual context it is absolutely 100% necessary to convey the message that the phrase conveys, but in other situations, it is a fact of human communication that no does not always mean no. And just "defining" that it should doesn't work. That's a problem that can't be solved for all situations on paper.
    – DonQuiKong
    Feb 16 at 11:02
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    @anongoodnurse oh please, with that mindset each act of education is a violation of a childs free will. There is a lot to discuss here, but wording it as if tickling is basically a violent crime doesn't help.
    – DonQuiKong
    Feb 16 at 16:47
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    I do not like to be tickled, and never have. But, because people have learned to play the game as you are playing it, I have had the experience of the other party not understanding that I'm serious when I said "stop" or "no". It's not fun. Feb 16 at 20:47
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    "it is a fact of human communication that no does not always mean no" should probably read: "it is a fact of crappy human communication that no does not always mean no". If you look at people who say "no" when they mean "yes" or "maybe", it's probably one of a couple of things: 1) they are miscommunicating as a form of manipulation or control, 2) they've bought into the idea that they should be pursued against their apparent wishes, 3) they are in a state of overwhelm and "no" is the quickest way for them to resolve it.
    – Dancrumb
    Feb 16 at 21:30

10 Answers 10

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How should I reconcile the concept of "no means no" / "Stop means Stop" when I tease my 5-year-old during tickle play?

By accepting that no means no and stop means stop.

That doesn't mean no tickling, or asking permission to tickle. It means being attuned to your daughter's moods and if she doesn't want to be tickled, you respect that without having your feelings hurt, i.e. you don't make it about you. This is exactly how you would want to be treated, not that anyone tickles you spontaneously and continues against your wishes, but imagine someone who likes to wrestle as horseplay, and does so with you in spite of your protests. When does "knock it off" mean "knock it off"? I assume that as an adult who does not feel like wrestling at the moment, you would want someone to stop before it became a real fight.

You stated that

There have been times when she is not in the mood for tickling, or the tickles are too much; in such situations she gets angry or sends other nonverbal signals which give me the clear message that it's not the right time for tickles.

If you don't tickle when she's not in the mood for tickling and stop immediately when you see she's not up for it, then there probably isn't an issue. But if she has gotten angry with you when you're tickling her, you've gone much too far, and you need to rethink your approach.

I'm assuming that your wife reacted to your tickling her beyond her enjoyment of the activity. As I said, if you don't actually do this, it's not really an issue between you and your daughter, but one between you and your wife.

The rest of this answer assumes that you've gone too far. So feel free to ignore it if that's not the case.

It sounds like you place some value on being a playful dad, that there is some part of your self-worth invested in being playful and making her laugh. This is fine if the child's feelings are taken into account. But because it's always fun for you doesn't mean it's fun for your daughter.

By not stopping tickling when your child says stop, your child will learn that her body is not totally her own and that what you want is more important than what she wants (or needs). Kids don't always get what they want, but that kind of reasoning does not come into play at all when it comes to her own body.

Most kids (not all) enjoy some tickling because they enjoy having the full attention of their parent, the physical contact, the roughhousing, and just the fact that a bit of tickling is fun. At some point, tickling becomes uncomfortable. It becomes so uncomfortable that it was used through the ages in different cultures as a form of punishment/torture on adults. Most parents are aware of abusive tickling and give the child some power in this very unequal dynamic: stops to check in with the child, and a safety word, or "Stop", which is consistently respected by "the tickle monster".

I don't know what message you're attempting to send by telling her you're not tickling her when you are. So I'll not address that; it's confusing to me.

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    Regarding the last bit: my daughter regularly asks me to tickle her, and enjoys it if I say I don't feel like it but at the same time actually do give a bit of a tickle. So much so, that she'll sometimes also ask me to tickle her and at the same time say I'm not doing so.
    – Oliphaunt
    Feb 15 at 19:43
  • But this question has made me think about whether this is in fact a bit of gaslighting and if that could actually be harmful...
    – Oliphaunt
    Feb 15 at 19:44
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    @Oliphaunt - Joe made the excellent point that if one respects no, and takes it for no, initially there might be some missed fun time. I think the trade favoring specificity in language is worth it. If the child means yes when she says no, she'll quickly learn not to say no unless she means it. How many adults expect their partners to know what they want without telling them, i.e. get angry at their partners for their inability to read their minds? ("You should have known that I didn't really mean it when I said, "No presents this Christmas...") Feb 15 at 22:40
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    @Eyeofpie so you're suggesting the kid should be allowed not to brush her teeth?
    – DonQuiKong
    Feb 17 at 8:37
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    @Eyeofpie There is a big difference between "No, stop doing that to me" and "No, I'm not going to do what I'm supposed to be doing".
    – chepner
    Feb 17 at 16:24
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I'm a firm believer that "No means no", including tickling. Does that mean that you can't initiate tickling without asking consent? No, not necessarily, any more than you need to ask your wife each time if she is okay with you kissing her - for most people. Some people would need that explicit consent to enjoy it, and for them, ask each time! One of our children does require explicitly asking consent (and usually won't give it) as he doesn't usually like the sensation of tickling, the other was more tolerant of it. People are different!

If your daughter generally enjoys tickling, and you're using your empathy to identify that now is probably an okay time to initiate it (or she does something that indicates it), then go for it. Start at less than 100% to give her a chance to confirm - just like you would with your wife, right?

But make it clear with her what the "stop" conditions are. If she says "no" or "stop" then... you stop. Does that perhaps mean you stop sometimes when she really would like to keep going? Probably; but she can learn to change her language some, and that's a valuable thing to learn, particularly in a safe space where she can test out how to interact.

It's also a great opportunity to talk about consent and "no means no" explicitly - that doesn't come up every day with a five year old!

Finally - there's lots of non-physical manners in which you can do goofy things with your kids. As they get older, that's something useful to learn. Instead of tickling, you can make funny faces, say silly things, role play... many options for this, if tickling is too hard to navigate for it to be fun. Some of these are better options anyway as the kid gets older - they'll be more fun than purely physical play as it engages their creative center.

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    "Does that perhaps mean you stop sometimes when she really would like to keep going? Probably; but she can learn to change her language some..." Great point! Feb 15 at 17:19
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What I do is

  • Tickle

  • Kid starts giggling, says "Stop" or "Red light!"

    • I've noticed that this seems to be reflex, and this is true for basically all of us, we instinctively say stop when tickled even if we are amused and enjoying the attention. If we had to always cease and desist, then we couldn't do this activity that we both like. Anyway...
  • I'll stop right away within a few seconds of her starting to say "Stop" --

  • but then I invite her to say "Green light," keeping my hands poised nearby and asking "is it green light? is it green light?"

  • She basically always says "GREEN LIGHT!" (and with a huge smile) after a second or two, and therefore she can still enjoy the play, while also feeling secure that she is and should be in control. Then we repeat the cycle a few times.

    • Or in contrast if she is in a mood where she doesn't want to be tickled or touched, after that first "stop" is when she'll say so, and then obviously it's time to quit. I would reinforce that with a statement like "Of course, we only tickle when it's fun for both people!"

note: My girl is 3, but I intend to keep doing this for years based on how much fun it is for both of us!

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    This is a great way to do it! Feb 16 at 1:17
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    Love it - reinforces consent in multiple ways, and helps her have a feeling of control while also enjoying it!
    – Joe
    Feb 16 at 20:33
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How should I reconcile the concept of "no means no" / "Stop means Stop" when I tease my 5-year-old during tickle play?

Saying no when you don't really mean it is common in these types of games so you need a way for your daughter to communicate she definitely wants you to stop. The answer is a "safe" word that won't normally come up during these playtimes. e.g. As soon as she says "strawberries" you stop without hesitation.

This concept will serve her well as she grows up and gets into other situations.

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    I thought about suggesting safe words, then decided that 5 is probably way too early to introduce kids to BDSM concepts.
    – Tom
    Feb 18 at 8:35
  • The concept works from about 3 in my experience but not those type of details lol.
    – deep64blue
    Feb 18 at 16:11
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I think this is a really wonderful question and I am glad that you asked!

I don't think that this situation should be different. "Stop" still means "stop" and "no" still means "no". Personally I'm not a fan of tickling and teasing - explained below. However, if your kid kind of likes it in some situations, perhaps you could develop some form of red light, yellow light, green light system in which the amount of tickling is controlled based upon what color the child says.

I grew up in an environment where I was not really allowed to say "no" to adults. I also grew up in an environment where kids were pretty frequently teased and tickled. I always hated it so much because I have sensory issues. Tickling hurts. Because my "no's" weren't respected/not allowed. I grew up with issues about consent in sexual situations. Additionally, while my significant others have typically verbally acknowledged that I don't like being tickled, they still end up doing it because "I love seeing you smile/laugh".

TL;DR: Please always respect "no" or "stop" from your kid in teasing/tickling situations. It truly will help them later in life. Bonus points if you can find out why she doesn't want to be tickled!

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    Your answer makes me appreciate XP84 's answer even more. The "adult environment" is not just the parents; it's also teachers at school. What happens if the parents respect the child's explicit "no", but the child learns at school that they're not allowed to explicitly say no to adults? Unfortunately this is something that many teachers teach in kindergarten and primary school without even realising it. I think the parent's responsibility should go beyond just respecting an explicit no; they should actively teach the child about consent, like in XP84 's answer.
    – Stef
    Feb 17 at 11:41
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    @Stef I learned from my parents that I was always at fault if adults said I was, so when the teachers at school starting giving me detention for zero reason I thought I couldn't rely on my parents to do anything. It wasn't I was around 25 years old I learned this was not the case.
    – DKNguyen
    Feb 17 at 20:31
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While I support the general principle behind "no means no", human interaction and communication is more nuanced than that and many parts of it - especially in playful and romantic contexts - thrive on ambiguities.

Don't deprive your kids of that, they would grow up and understand only parts of the full spectrum.

That said, your wife is also right. Kids should understand boundaries, and before you can expect them to respect other people's boundaries they first need to understand that their boundaries are respected.

I believe that you are right on track. Your kids need to learn how to communicate - with a combination of words, intonation, facial expression and body language - both the "no" that means seriously, no and the "no" that means playful push away. This is the full spectrum of human interaction, and if they know how to express both clearly, there are fewer chances for misunderstandings later in life.

I might get some flack for that, but anyone who thinks that humans don't occasionally say "no" when they mean please convince me or "stop" when they mean continue, just slow down a bit is either autistic or playing pretend with themselves. This isn't limited to romance or play, either. Most of us have told grandma that her present was great or her food tasty when it really wasn't, but respect and courtesy trumped honesty.

What you definitely want to teach your kids is that with strangers or people they know only superficially, no means no and stop means stop.

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Many answers are debating whether "stop" really means stop in this situation. I think it's irrelevant.

Even if there are (arguably) situations where "stop" might actually mean something different, the subtleties of that are way too much for a child to understand.

If she says "stop", just stop. If she wants you to continue, she can let you know that. If she is just screaming "stop" as a reflex and doesn't really mean stop, she will quickly learn not to do so anymore if she wants you to continue.

She will also learn that her "no" will be respected by you, and will expect the same from others in her life, including future romantic partners (or the over-enthusiastic auntie who keeps pushing for a hug).

What you described where you say, "I'm not tickling you," and then tickle her, can send mixed messages. You could easily accomplish the same thing with some play-acting. Put your hands behind your back and look up at the ceiling while whistling, pretending that you're not even aware she's there. Then suddenly pull your hand out and give her a tickle (of course, respecting her if she tells you not to). That takes the confusing verbal aspect out of it, and lets it be fun and a surprise without giving any mixed messages.

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The problem is that the basic assumption is not true, there are different types of 'no', and they do not always really mean 'stop immediately', sometimes it's just 'slow down' or similar. You must not use the same concept that adults use for adults things (that sentence typically refers to sexual harassment) when playing with a child. If you feel like they might be start crying, you have obviously gone too far, but watch for a number of clues, verbal and physical. This is a very important ability to hone among siblings for example. I think it's very important to occasionally push the boundaries and make sure the child knows how to 'fight back' in case a certain threshold is crossed.

This will result in a tighter bidirectional bond with the child, and will give them more responsibility and independence with time. They will be better at interacting with other children (and later, young adults) that do not follow the "no means no" principle and could be annoying or even dangerous to them.

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  • As a child, my father used to tickle us, ignoring our cries to cry to stop until the laughter turned to sobbing, at which point he would get angry and walk away. It was awful, and I hated it. He disregarded our feelings in many other ways as well. I had a very tenuous relationship with him as an adult. That's extreme, and it was pathological, but if a parent disregards a child's feelings in this way, this very unequal power dynamic, it's not highly unlikely they are missing cues of doing so in other ways as well. Feb 16 at 16:11
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    Did I not clearly say that getting to the point of crying is too far? There is some risk in pushing the boundary but also rewards, I mentioned some above, and such rewards in my opinion clearly outweigh the risks. Can this mechanism be abused? Of course. But kept to a sane balance is a great way to have a strong bond. I cannot obviously comment on the specifics of what happened in Your case but I hope you find a way to reconcile with your father. Feb 16 at 20:09
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    @AlessioSangalli This stance comes off to me as the one of the few times people are so gung-ho to point out the flaws of "lies to children" and put aside the fundamental basics to immediately start teaching more advanced nuanced concepts. I can't think of another subject where so many people promote this approach.
    – DKNguyen
    Feb 16 at 21:27
  • @anongoodnurse My comment was meant to be addressed to the answer itself. Particularly the first paragraph.
    – DKNguyen
    Feb 16 at 21:46
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As for the consent issue, it seems black and white to me. What she learns from you about relationships will stick. Just fast forward ten years until she is "studying" in her room with her first boyfriend. You overhear "no, stop!" Do you still feel comfortable with a fluid definition of these words?

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No doesn't necessarily mean no.

As you say, sometimes she say stop while laughing and being obviously open to keep playing.

Other time you can see she actually isn't up for it, and her no means no

That's actually how you reconcile the apparent contradiction, you watch how the other reacts (overall) and act accordingly.

If this is difficult to do (eg the game turns sour more often than not) then stop. If most of the time you're having a great time, enjoy playing.

It is important to realise that any well meaning interaction carries risks of hurt. If you're chasing her, or playing football, or even just chatting you might end up hurting her. This is unavoidable. What matters is how you react after. Do you apologise and recognise mistakes on your behalf? Or do you eg. Tell them it's their fault and to not be a crybaby?

This last bit teaches them that it is normal to sometimes make mistakes, it is ok to recognise them and that well meaning people that care about them will not brush their hurt over.

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