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Tickling Father

About once a month I get a question about fathers tickling their young child “unmercifully” as one woman wrote. She went on to say “My husband is a good father except he comes home from work and the first thing he does is chase our two-year-old son around and around the house, letting him get away for a few times. When he catches him he says, “I won!” and holds him down and tickles him. My son starts laughing but he ends up screaming. My husband calls this a game but when our son screams and cries I think he is being abused. My husband scoffs at me and says I am over-reacting to the horseplay that all boys do”.

There are two classic ways fathers play too rough with their children. One is repeatedly tossing a young baby into the air and the second is tickling a child way past the point of enjoyment often to the point of tears.

Why do fathers over-toss and over-tickle? Some fathers play especially rough with sons because they want to toughen them up. The fathers think roughhousing keeps their son from growing up a sissy. Some fathers simply do not know much about babies and young children, especially how they let us know they have had enough play.

Observation tells us that fathers and mothers tend to play with babies differently. Mothers typically are more gentle with babies. They hold the baby face-to-face and talk to the baby. Fathers are more likely to play games that involve physical activity and play more energetically.

We don’t really know whether the difference between this play behavior is instinctive or is related to the way fathers and mothers were themselves raised. But we do know that babies need both kinds of stimulation. And babies have a built-in way of telling us when they have had enough of either kind of stimulation. Even very young babies will turn the head away when they no longer want interaction with the caregiver. Gaze-aversion is the first line of defense babies use when they have had too much stimulation. If this doesn’t work the baby will get irritable, start squirming, and finally cry.

Wise parents learn to read their baby’s signals. Mothers usually catch on to these signals quicker than fathers do because they spend more time with the baby and do most of the feeding. Mothers instinctively jiggle a sleepy baby at the breast. Mothers coordinate the jiggling to the baby’s alertness and the baby reciprocates by reacting to the jiggling. Together mother and infant learn a dance of interaction which is different for each mother-baby pair. Fathers can and do learn this dance although it may take them longer.

If fathers don’t pick up signals that baby has had enough when the two are playing, the mother has yet another task. She must gently show the father how Baby has its own way of saying “That’s all the tossing I want right now, Pop!” She can also suggest the father read a bit about the early life of babies and watch how other fathers play with young babies. Mother must be tactful, not critical, because many fathers feel timid about being near babies and may go into avoidance mode if they think they have made a mistake or can’t be trusted with the baby.

What about the father described in the letter above? I get a mixed message. It sounds as though he really wants and enjoys the one-on-one with his son. It’s the first thing he does when he comes home. But he likely enjoys both “winning” and controlling his son. I don’t think your husband is guilty of abuse (although I have seen roughhousing turn into abuse) but he definitely is guilty of being indifferent to his son’s signals.

This misguided indifference has two downstream consequences. Your son will get to the point where he is conflicted. He loves his dad and wants his attention but he eventually may avoid him so he won’t feel helpless and hurt. He may want to spend more time with Mommy so Dad’s ploy to toughen up his son may actually backfire. Plus he is a boy and boys learn a lot from their dads about how to treat people littler then they are. Neither parent wants to see their son mistreat kids in play group or at preschool.

To change things all your husband has to do is learn ways of interacting with his toddler that they both enjoy. He can read to his son, they can sing songs together, build block towers, play ball with those really soft balls, and even run races where he lets his son win and tickle HIM!

If you have an over-tickling father in your home show him this ParenTip. I have great faith in today’s fathers who make an effort to have a good and close relationship with their children. All they need is a little guidance sometimes.(And wives who don’t criticize or laugh at their husband’s initial attempts at participatory fatherhood.)