Tickling

October 6th, 2018
kids
Before our kids learned to talk, I would play tickles with them. I would make tickling gestures as I moved towards them, they would start giggling a little, then I would tickle them and they would laugh. We'd continue until they seemed to be done with the game, and then we'd move on to something else. As they got older and learned to talk a bit I would ask them "do you want to be tickled?" and their initial response was typically to say 'no' and giggle. They really looked like they wanted to be tickled, and the traditional way to handle that would be to interpret the 'no' as a play 'no' and try to do what you think they want you to do.

On the one hand, taking in everything you can tell about a situation and making your best judgement is part of the pragmatics of human conversation. When someone tells you "that's just what we needed!" a small change in tone of voice can shift the polarity entirely, indicating the opposite of the plain reading via sarcasm. On the other hand, several people have told me that as kids they hated being tickled but would involuntarily smile and laugh while objecting, which the adults around them misunderstood. In general, ignoring a 'no' seems pretty risky, especially in cases where we know some people have misleading involuntary reactions.

Instead, when our kids would do the no-with-giggle I would respond the same way as if they'd given a fully serious 'no'. They were initially confused by this, and would sometimes repeat the no-with-giggle more emphatically. I'd ask again if they wanted tickles, and only tickle them if they said 'yes', trying to teach them that they needed to give clear signals. Over time their no-with-giggles responses petered out, and they started consistently saying 'yes' or 'no' when I offered tickles.

This was very surprising to me: I wouldn't have expected the mixed signals response to come so naturally, and need explicit practice to learn to suppress.

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