Lessons on lateral thinking from a 4 year old

Several weeks ago I brought home a copy of Creative Loafing, Atlanta’s alt-weekly magazine. Guided by some nefarious motive that my noncynical mind can’t comprehend, they published an image of ice cream cones planted head-first into concrete on the cover of their summer issue.

The saddest picture ever

My wife, my daughter and I discussed the picture. We do this thing as parents where we talk to our 4 year old daughter about finding solutions to problems she witnesses in her environment (I think my wife read about this in a book, or maybe we just picked it up from Peg + Cat). I asked my daughter how she might recover the ice cream that had been so maliciously smashed into the concrete.

“You can pick up the ice cream cones and just cut off the tops that are dirty,” she said. True, I said, but then you wouldn’t have very much ice cream left. I didn’t have a better solution than what she suggested, so I suppose I was just being critical for the sake of it. This might be kind of a jerk dad move, but it did keep her thinking.

“That’s the saddest picture ever,” said my wife.

Upon hearing this, my daughter stared silently at the picture for about 2 seconds. Then she flipped it 180 degrees and said “now it’s not the saddest picture ever.”

Not the saddest picture ever

In one brilliant move my daughter had solved the problem. What was once a vision of summertime despair became a delightful vignette of ice cream cones floating overhead, waiting to be plucked from the sky.

I’ve distilled from this moment a few key observations about problem-solving and lateral thinking:

Start with the most obvious solution

My daughter’s first recommended solution was to just scrape off the stuff that touched the ground. This will provide ice cream. Often the obvious solution will be satisfactory, but not always optimal.

Collaborate

I doubt my daughter would have thought much more about the ice cream problem if I hadn’t (gently, in a loving way) suggested that there were still issues with her solution. This, along with my wife reframing the problem in a different context (the saddest picture ever), provided grist for further thought.

Look past the premise

Once my daughter thought outside the original premise of “get ice cream” to the lateral dimension of “make this a happy picture,” another obvious solution (to her, not to me) became apparent: turn the picture upside down.

The next time I’m confronted with a problem where the obvious solution has a less than ideal outcome, I’ll work with others, look outside the premise of the problem, and find the 180 degree solution.