Whose problem is it, anyway?

My oldest daughter is suffering from a split lower lip for quite some time now. It appeared shortly after the first grim winter spell. It didn’t hurt, she said, so we didn’t pay a lot of attention to it. We treated it with a special ointment and a rather girlish chapstick. But after a while, it occured to us that the wound wasn’t healing nicely. What’s even worse: because of her constant fidgeting with the newly formed crust, it wasn’t healing at all.

So far, every attempt to stop her from doing that was met with total indifference. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. This would surely develop into a scar. In her face. Come on – didn’t she see that she was slowly mutilating herself?

A couple of days ago, I tried to tactfully tackle the issue once more during a toothbrushing session.

– “Time to brush those teeth, girl”

– “Okay, daddy”

I noticed some dried-up blood on her lip.

– “Did you remove the crust again? I told you not to do that”

She kept her cool.

– “I didn’t”

– “Don’t lie, honey…”

– “Well, not intentionally…”

I thought she was just testing my patience.

– “You’re pulling my leg, right?”

– “No daddy. Really. No. I mean… I can’t help it. And I don’t remember touching the crust.”

– “I told you, you should let it heal nicely. If you keep scratching your lip and removing the crust, it will become a scar. And scars aren’t pretty.”

She started brushing her teeth, gazing down at the sink. Total indifference. Again. I didn’t understand. How could she remain so calm under all this? I already had visions about her scarred face and classmates making fun of her, and she couldn’t care less! I was about to shift in daddy preaching mode (that it would make her ugly, that she would regret it big time later on, all that stuff) when, suddenly, she looked me straight in the eyes.

– “Why is that such a big deal, daddy?”

– “What do you mean? You don’t care about your face?”

I thought she was just provoking me. Instead, she gave me a brief look into her six-year old unspoiled mind, teaching me a valuable lesson in the process:

– “It’s no problem, really. I don’t see it.

– “You don’t see what?”

– “My face. I don’t see my face.”

She left me speechless for a while after that. I was stupefied. Of course! She doesn’t care, because she simply doesn’t see a problem.

Only afterwards, it occurred to me that these are the kinds of situations that are described in “Are your lights on?” (by Jerry Weinberg and Don Gause). A highly recommended and playful book on problem solving, by the way.

The authors describe a problem as “a difference between things as desired and things as perceived“.

When confronted with a problem, they advise us to:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Determine the problem’s owner
  3. Identify where the problem came from
  4. Determine whether or not to solve it

The problem

What is the nature of the problem? A wound in her lip that is not healing. The constant fidgeting with the healing wound might cause an ugly scar or an infection. Or both.

The problem’s owner

Whose problem is that lip, anyway? My daughter’s? Her lip doesn’t hurt. And she perceives things differently: it never occured to me that she doesn’t see it constantly. She’s not the kind of girl that spends her time in front of a mirror, and if she does, it is only to admire that fancy new dress, her fairy make-up or that special Pippi Longstocking hairdo. But *never* her face. So, unless it starts hurting or until she hits puberty and starts seeing herself through the eyes of others, it will pretty much be the problem of her worried parents.

Where does the problem come from?

As the book also points out, the source of the problem most often originates within the person trying to solve the problem. Parents want their children to be healthy, beautiful, succesful and happy. Anything that threatens our children’s bliss worries us. In this case, we got nervous, made her nervous, possibly reinforcing the fidgeting behavior.

Should we solve the problem?

We want that wound to heal beautifully, for sure, but is this something we can really solve ourselves? Our daughter will only be motivated to adapt her behavior when *she* starts seeing it as *her* problem. Until then, and unless it develops into something more severe, we are perhaps better off by leaving the wound as is – let nature have its way.


“Children wish fathers looked but with their eyes;
fathers that children with their judgment looked;
and either may be wrong”
(William Shakespeare)

That day, my daughter made one thing crystal clear to me – I shouldn’t inflict my fears and worries on a six-year old who doesn’t yet care about her image in the mirror.


11 thoughts on “Whose problem is it, anyway?”

  1. Great post.

    I had a similar example on the weekend when we climbed up The Rock in Gibraltar. At the top there were some railings, sometimes missing in parts next to a 150 meter drop straight down. I told my son (7 years) several times to move further away from the edge which he didn’t understand. He didn’t see the problems that I could imagine quite well.

    Of course the problems were mine. The risk of falling down the side of the cliff is there but maybe he was far enough away for his taste, just not enough for mine. Which proves again that a problem is a relationship. At what point does the risk of falling down become too much and at what point am I restricting his freedom? Some valuable lessons there.

    On a side note, the field names for Name, Email and Website are not aligned with the actual fields in IE7 for me. Get in touch if you’d like a screenshot.

  2. Great story. It might be helpful to remember step 0 above, and ask “What is a problem?” G.F. Smith pointed out that a problem is “an undesirable situation that is significant to and maybe solvable by some agent, though probably with some difficulty”. It was John Dewey (I think) who said that a problem is “a difference between what is perceived and what is desired”, and Gause and Weinberg either adopted or refined that definition. Yet desirablility, significance, solvability, difference, perception, and desire are all subject to the Relative Rule: that is, none of them are absolutes, and each is relative to some person at some time.

    Or you might choose to recite to your daughter a limerick by Anthony Euwer:

    As a beauty I’m not a great star
    There are others more handsome by far
    But my face I don’t mind it,
    Because I’m behind it-
    ‘Tis the folks in the front that I jar.

    So it’s an excellent analysis on your part. Your daughter’s lip might be a problem. But for whom?

    —Michael B.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Michael.
      Once you become aware of the relative character of statements – things – problems, it is hard to unsee it again. Then again, why should we want to unsee it?

      Is there any situation in which the relative rule does not apply?
      Maybe that’s a good exercise to make. The relative rule in itself is – by definition – probably relative to some person at some time, too?

      — Zeger

  3. Nice post! I really enjoyed this read and am reminded again to employ these principles not only at work but at home. My kids are 6 and 8 and often provide me with more learning opportunities than I do for them. I wonder how many I am missing? Eeek.


  4. Cool Post Zeger, and great observation skills as a parent, your daughter is very lucky to have you listen to her the way you did. Words that she spoke, seemingly slight, and left you speechless communicates to me you are very in tune with her! I have another dimension to add, that connects to what you wrote, but diverges to how I believe teachings get through to children.

    As a parent I have learned how children really do pick up on what you teach them, but when they pick it up can come at a surprising time, or never in the realm of your perception. A wound can be an opportunity to teach her about care for the wound, sanitization, how healing works, scaring, and medical safety; these teachings become part of her.

    I thought of this when I remembered my mom teaching me to journal on a trip we went on when I was a teenager. My mom, as I found out after she passed away, was an avid journal writer and was trying to pass this off to me. I enjoyed the process on the trip but didn’t really journal on my own until recently. The seed was planted by her but didn’t come to be in me until I was ready. I imagined her frustration, in relation to how I sometimes feel when trying to get through to my children, but she never got to know how valuable her contribution was. Another example was when I taught my boys chess when they were younger. Recently my oldest son picked up the game in a much more disciplined manor using some of the books I got him, when he was younger, and his own mentors and books he has found on his own. He creates his own gravity for the game in our house and his younger brothers are very influenced to play and study as well. I am sure we all have countless examples like this as parents, because I believe there is an underlying truth: we can guide them to the place of discovery and they will, as we have, make these discoveries themselves. Learning this helped me let go of some of my worry, fear, and frustration. I realized, like me with my mom, my kids actually pick up on what I teach them – it just takes some time and patience for it to grow.

    1. James, thank you for your wonderful reaction. It’s true – most of the time, our kids do follow our heartfelt advice, but at their own pace, whenever they’re ready. What’s with all these impatient adults? 🙂

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