Tickling: why stop means stop

Two young children tickling each other.

I was interested to read comments made by MP Alison Thewliss recently. During a commons debate on sexual harassment and violence in schools, she advised parents to teach children about consent from a very early age. She also suggests doing this in a way that may seem unusual to some, but that I agree with.

In short, parents are implored to stop tickling their children when they ask them to. This is something I already do. I read some similar advice on social media a few months ago, it struck me as a really accessible way of teaching the kids an important concept and that was that.

Most parents tickle their children and I’m no exception. Dylan hates it so I leave him well alone, but Xander and Amelie love it. However, they do sometimes ask me to stop and, when they do, I absolutely respect that.

This is because I feel it establishes a mutual respect as well as a sound understanding of what ‘stop’ means. Of course, the reason doesn’t necessarily need to be spelled out for them and it can be as simple as leading by example and making respect a normal thing.

Alongside this, it is important to tell them that they can say ‘stop’ and also that they understand that their bodies are their own. They should question people’s intentions and not trust others unconditionally. For instance, there’s nothing wrong with a child asking why a doctor needs to see their tummy.

This approach extends to other areas of parenting. Teaching them that no means no can surely only be a good thing that can be applied to any situation. I feel that failing to stop when requested can also undermine you as a parent as it impacts on trust.

For example, I don’t see how parents can tell siblings to stop hitting each other and expect them to if they themselves fail to stop tickling them when asked.

It’s inconsistent parenting. The message the parent’s behaviour sends out here is that it’s okay to ignore requests to stop doing things. And, for me, that’s the wrong message.

Some may argue that, if this approach is implicit, there’s no point in it and that it’s therefore too early. I strongly dispute this.

First of all, with everything in the news at the moment, it’s obvious to me that more needs to be done. For me, the logical solution is to begin teaching the idea of accepting boundaries significantly earlier in life. Particularly as kids tend to have a very clear understanding of what is ‘fair’.

I recall consent being covered during sex education lessons at secondary school, but maybe this is too little too late if there isn’t a pre-existing understanding of respecting other people.

Secondly, I believe that it’s never too early to teach children important things like this. They learn so quickly when they’re young and without prejudice too.

Young children are taught the underwear rule, so why shouldn’t they be taught to respect the wishes of others too?

Finally, I think that people who say that tickling is harmless are missing the point. It’s not actually the tickling that’s at the heart of this approach. It’s about teaching the value of respecting others’ wishes.

This is why I believe it’s so important to teach children consent very early on. Ultimately, this makes it much more likely that they’ll grow up with a better understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour and that stop means stop.

What do you think?


  1. LD

    Must agree, Tom – all parents have the power to ignore pleas to stop, including those of kids who genuinely dislike being tickled. They also have the unmissable chance to let their kids know that they listen and respect their reasonable wishes, by stopping and not persisting.

  2. Judith

    100% agree. If you don’t stop tickling when they say stop, will THEY stop tickling their friends when they say stop? The answer is no, as we have found with our 7yo. He loves hugs and tickles, but we have been alerted by his teacher a few times that he will just grab other kids and hug/tickle them, regardless of whether they want this. I think it is never too early to teach consent. We have taken to saying: “If the person you’re playing with is not enjoying the game, it is not a fun game.”

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