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.

Epilogue

“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.