I did not know I had an addictive personality until I had children. As it turned out, I would do anything – anything – for the high of hearing my babies laugh. Silly faces, songs on repeat, tickles and puppets and raspberries on their squashy bellies: whatever it took. On a good day, diaper changes were a festival of delighted squeals.
However, as each of them turned the corner into toddlerhood, something about the game changed and mock-resistance became part of the play. “Noooooooo, Mama,” my daughter would giggle as I bent to kiss her neck. “Stop it!” my son would squeal, trying to shield his tummy even while breathless with laughter.
And one day, I stopped.
“Let’s not play that game,” I told my confused toddler. “You said no, and so Mommy is going to stop. If you say stop, I will stop.”
She sized me up for a minute. “Tickle me again,” she dared. So I did.
“Stop!” she cried. And I did.
“No means no,” and “stop means stop” have become well-worn phrases in our house. When the wrestling gets too rough with Daddy, when the baby keeps trying to grab the glitter glue project, when the game of Tag turns into a game of Shove: “no” has to mean something. We practice it in play time, because these are the rehearsals for a life time of knowing your boundaries and owning your voice.
There was something terrifying in that moment, poised mid-play above my giggling daughter, in realizing that even though she was laughing and I was laughing, she was still saying no, and I was strong enough to overpower her. At what age would she learn that she had the right to say ‘no’ about what happened to her body? When would my sons learn it was okay to stand up to a bully? After all, a bully’s most cowardly line of defense is “what are you getting so upset about? I was only joking.”
I flushed at the realization. If owning their “no” is something I hope for my children in adulthood, then I had to let them own their no in their childhood. Even as toddlers. Even while giggling. Even with their mother.
We took a family trip to the beach recently: a weekend of ice-cream and boardwalk rides and gorgeous Santa Cruz sunsets. Walking home after an afternoon of breathless wave chasing, we passed by a teenage couple seated in a car in the parking lot. Something about them caught my eye.
They were smiling and flirting, and the boy leaned over and put his hand on her breast. She swatted his hands away, laughing. I saw her lips move: “Stop it.” He reached for her again, and again, and again, both of them laughing, her swatting, and me with a rising sense of panic .
He startled at the loud knock on the car window, nostrils flared at the stranger yelling at him: “Cut it out! Her body belongs to HER, and she will tell you if and when you are allowed to touch it. If she says no: stop. Immediately. And wipe that smirk off your face. No means no.”
I don’t even know where the voice came from.
But I wondered, as I walked away stunned at what had just happened, whether either of those teens had ever played a game in their childhood where tickling trumped discomfort, and no’s were smothered by giggles. Maybe nobody had ever honored their toddler resistance, and said, “Let’s not play that game. Your no means no.”