When I was a child, my dad used to tickle us until we cried, and there was nothing we could do about it. We could scream, we could kick, we could sob, and he thought it was funny. I remember feeling impotent, and that filled me with rage. I was stuck in a world where I couldn't even be the boss over my own body. So I picked on my siblings to prove that I had power, if not over myself, then over someone else.
It was that memory of feeling powerless, plus the need to have a respectful method of keeping peace in our home, that inspired my husband and me to develop the "Please stop" rule. When our daughter and son were 2 and 5 respectively, we told them that if someone used the words "Please stop," they had to knock off the tickling, teasing, kicking ,or whatever annoying behaviour had surpassed that person's tolerance level.
Of course, they tested us. They would pick on each other, sing loudly, or shout insults. The intended victim would invoke the rule, and they'd both wait to see if we'd enforce it. We always did, answering, "Your sister said, 'Please stop.' That means stop." And whenever one of the kids came running to us to complain about some kid-crime, like, "He's making faces at me," I would ask, "Did you say, 'Please stop!"' If the answer was no, I would say, "Go say, 'Please stop,' and he will." After two weeks, they stopped testing and started internalising the rule.
So if our now 11-year-old Billy is shooting rubber bands at his 8-year-old sister, Cara, all she has to say is "Please stop." Or if she's playing her kazoo full blast while he's trying to study, it takes only two words and she quits.
Other parents who have heard about this have raised their eye brows and smirked. "Sure," they say. "A kid will stop picking on his sister if she just asks. Uh-huh."
But it works for us for three reasons.
Nothing stops if someone is giggling and squealing, "Quit it." (The specific wording also encourages politeness. Nothing stops if Cara yells, "Shut up!" in her brother's face.)
Aside from the short term advantages, the rule teaches the children that they have authority over their own body. So years from now — or even next week — if some one does something that makes my daughter uncomfortable, she can ask him to stop. And if he doesn't. she'll know that it's his problem, not hers, and she can raise the roof We're giving both of our children the confidence to say "I don't like what you're doing to me and it must end." It's a confidence I know I didn't have as a child, or even as a teenager.
The rule also teaches them that other people deserve the same respect. Which means that when my son is on a date, he'll stop when the girl asks him to, without debate. The "Please stop" rule has become somewhat famous in our neighbourhood. One day two children who live across the street were having a water fight. The boy was getting thoroughly doused and had obviously had enough. As his sister came toward him with a hose, he ran into our yard. "Please stop!" he yelled. "you know you have to listen to me when I say that here!" And his sister did.
But the most satisfying application of the rule was the time my daughter invoked it to stop the behaviour that had inspired it in the first place. When Cara was three, my father came to visit. He was playing on the floor with her, tickling her until she screamed. From the kitchen I heard her say "Please stop!" But he continued. Again she said "Please stop!" but louder. Still he didn't listen. Finally she wriggled away and with her small hands on her hips she lectured: "I said, 'Please stop' and in this house, stop means stop!"
My dad expected her to be scolded for talking to him that way, but I was filled with pride. "Dad, "I said, coming in from the kitchen, "she said 'stop.' She even said 'please.' And in this house, that's enough."