We were deep into a tickling session. My daughter, who is months away from being 3, had fully surrendered. Uncontrollable belly laughs. You know the type. There’s nothing quite like the innocent joy of a kid giggling from a tickled belly.
She was squirming and fighting, pushing my hand from her belly. So I went for her neck. She laughed more. I switched to her armpit. I was laughing. She was laughing. It was a beautiful daddy-daughter moment. After fits of giggles and screams, she said, “Stop, stop, stop.”
I know she didn’t mean it. I knew shortly after she would ask me to tickle her again. But for her entire life, anytime I’ve touched her, as a game, or to change her clothes, or any other random reason, any time she says “stop,” I stop. Always.
Lessons in respect, consent from #MeToo movement
I wasn’t as aware of these moments with my first daughter. It was maybe five years ago, a couple years into her life, when the whole #MeToo movement went viral. Like most generic males, I was a bit skeptical. I was more prone to roll my eyes and shrug it off as a typical social media cause. Just a whole lot of noise and not a lot of substance.
Then women I knew started sharing their stories. Women way too close to me. Women who were strong and confident. Women I never imagined could ever be a victim. My typical sluggish and dense male mind began to open and accept reality.
The next time I was tickling my daughter, we had the same moment we always had. She was laughing. She said no. I didn’t stop. She said no again. I didn’t stop. “Daddy!” And I stopped. She looked at me.
“I really wanted you to stop that time,” she said. Flippantly, I replied, “OK, OK. No big deal.”
It took me a moment to realize it was a big deal.
From that moment forward, my policy was no means no. It didn’t matter what it was. If she said “no” in regard to me touching her, I stopped. Always.
When my son was born, I did the same. Boy or girl. Playing or not playing. No means no. The more I listened to their requests, the more it became clear how often I ignored their requests.
Teach ‘no means no‘ early for better people later
My hope is that I’m modeling a couple different things. First, I want it to be clear to my children that adults they love and trust will stop when they say stop. There’s no ambiguity there. I want them to know they have full agency of their bodies. Second, I want my children to see me respecting the boundaries they set for their own bodies. In this way, I hope they will learn they have control to give and deny consent over their bodies. Any adult who doesn’t respect that is an adult they don’t need in their lives. As they get older, I hope they grow to be adults who respect their partners and their peers in the same way.
I’m not suggesting all those fun moments with my kids are nefarious or damaging. I’m certain I’m traumatizing them in many other ways I’ve yet to perceive, but in this small way of respecting the playful “no,” I’m hoping I’m preparing them to respect the serious “No.”
I know the initial reaction to something like this may be a skeptical one. It’s hard to hear things we do in innocence could ever be distorted into something damaging, but our discomfort is no excuse for apathy. If we want a better world, we need to thoughtfully raise better people. I’ve written in the past about how small tweaks to our behavior can have massive benefits, and I believe this is another example.
I feel it important to note that if I tell my kids to go to bed, eat their dinner, or cease assaulting their siblings, and they say “no,” ain’t nobody respecting that “no.” Parents have boundaries, too.
The good news is we still have epic tickle fights, and the disruption to a solid belly tickle session is minor. There’s also another benefit to proactively working to limit our kid’s future emotional baggage: their therapists will have to work a little extra harder to find things to blame us for. There’s value in that.