How the Tickle Spider Saved Our Picky Eater


Have you met the Tickle Spider? She lured our picky eater to gobble up his dinner. Our family prefers employing her skills to strife at mealtimes. After all, food is pleasure. Sharing food with family members is even more so.

The Tickle Spider lurks - lying in wait for the child to simply take a bite.

I've never appreciated unsolicited advice on raising children, so rest assured, I'm not about to give you a meaningless "How To" list. I've been greatly humbled by my thirty-five years of parenting. And besides, everyone must discover their own paths in navigating the tenuous, and sometimes treacherous, journey called parenthood.

Instead, I'm sharing a game that grew organically out of a need to help our picky eater increase his repertoire. I don't think we gave the idea of inventing a Tickle Spider much thought. Thankfully, creativity seemingly appears out of nowhere when we're open enough to recognize and accept its value.

If you derive some humor from this post, then my job has been accomplished.  On the other hand, if you end up inventing your own game, so much the better. Our game went something like this.

Black and white drawing of "Miss Muffet's Spider", by Serious Tux,
Black and white drawing of "Miss Muffet's Spider", by Serious Tux,

How we employed the Tickle Spider to help our picky eater

My son looks at his dinner plate; he's hungry but also suspicious. There's at least one food that appears acceptable. So, he picks up his fork, pushing things around a bit.

I say to him, "You weren't seriously thinking about eating those peas, were you?"

A slight smile spreads across his face as he defiantly takes a bite of peas. He thinks he might like peas.

"Don't eat those peas," I say, "or the Tickle Spider will come."

Meanwhile, my fingers slowly creep into view, skirting the edges of the table - stalking him. His eyes become fixated on the movements of my hand. I see the crooked line of a grin emerge as he takes another bite.

"No, don't eat that!" I say.

The Tickle Spider (my hand) scurries across the table like a crab, but before it gets too close, my son whacks it (gently). The spider, stunned from the blow, rolls over on its back with legs (my fingers) flailing in the air. And then, it lies still - by all appearances, the Tickle Spider is dead.

"Oh no, look at what happened to the Tickle Spider!" I say. "This is tragic." I bury my face in my hands.

But the Tickle Spider has about a million lives, more lives than adults wish at times. It pops up and returns to safety, peeking out from under the table ledge - waiting for the boy to take another bite. With a broad smile and laughter that can't be repressed, he obliges. (Adults must warn children at this point to be careful not to choke on their food. This game can get out of hand!)

With a stern expression, I repeat my warnings. "I said, don't eat that, especially the salmon!"

Black and white drawing of spider web scroll design, Spiderweb scroll, by liftarn,
Black and white drawing of spider web scroll design, Spiderweb scroll, by liftarn,

But there's no stopping our picky little eater at this point. And the Tickle Spider advances. It has learned to escape the whacks and gradually inches closer to its victim, who is now gobbling down both peas and salmon.

For what feels like an eternity, much chaos ensues with Tickle Spider whacking and Tickle Spider death and rebirth, while adults chant, "Don't eat that," in a falsely strict kind of tone. It's important to appear genuinely horrified at the thought of the child eating his or her dinner. One must possess some acting skills to play this game, which continues until most of the food has vanished from the plate - at which point, there IS a bit of tickling involved. Meanwhile, the exhausted adults sit staring at their dinner, which is now well beyond cold.

We played the Tickle Spider game much further into my son's childhood than he would like to admit.

Long after he knew he was too old to allow adults to manipulate him in this way, he just couldn't resist. It was truly delightful to watch him process the dilemma. But in the end, for the longest time, the Tickle Spider would win, all of us giving in to the delightful fray of this playful dinner game.

Why didn't you just set firmer limits? you might ask. Well, we tried that, which made dinnertime far too unpleasant.

Still Life with a Turkey Pie, by GDJ, Original art by Pieter Claesz
Still Life with a Turkey Pie, by GDJ, Original art by Pieter Claesz

I love reflecting back on these evenings - laughter in the soft, warm glow of the kitchen lamp; pots and pans sitting stoically on the stove top like soldiers on guard, waiting to be emptied and washed with the crusty dishes, which remain on the table - my after dinner work staring at me through the chaos and joy of the moment.

If this game proves useful in helping your picky eater, I suspect that's because it confirmed what you already intuitively knew to be true: make the most of these moments with children - not everything in life has to be such a struggle. Oops, that sounded like advice. Sorry.

Promise me this, though. If the Tickle Spider does happen to make an appearance at your dinner table, would you give her my regards?


Last updated August 14, 2016