Removing A Splinter

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Two weeks ago, my son came home from nursery school with a splinter in his palm.  It was so small, though, I wasn’t sure if it was really there.

“It’s there,” my wife said.

She’d tried to squeeze it out before I’d come home but had only succeeded in hurting him terribly.  He’d shrieked and cried and tears had poured down his face.  When I looked at it (he gave me his palm only reluctantly), I saw a small area of swelling around a tiny black dot.

“I’m not sure I see a splinter,” I said to my wife.

“It’s there,” she replied.

“Let’s wait until tomorrow to let the swelling go down,” I said.

So we did.  The next morning, however, though somewhat reduced, the area was still swollen.  So we began discussing the need to pull it out.

“No!” my son exclaimed.

We looked at one another helplessly.  We had little choice, but he was having none of it.  We tried reasoning with him.  He wouldn’t budge (of course).  Then we promised him a special treat:  a lollipop (we have no shame).

Timidly, he handed me his palm.  I probed gently with some tweezers.

“I’m still not sure there’s anything there,” I said.

“It’s there,” my wife repeated.  (Mothers, I’m now embarrassed to admit, always know about splinters.)

Without warning, my wife squeezed my son’s palm around the tiny black speck again and my son howled in pain.  Tears again poured from his eyes.  I stared at my wife open-mouthed as she tried to comfort him.  “You have to warn him!” I hissed.  She looked at me guiltily.

Ten more minutes of attempting to coax his palm back into my hand, of course, did no good.  So against his protests, as gently as I could, I pinned his palm and applied the tweezers.  He cried and yelled, “Daddy!  Daddy!  Please don’t!”  My heart breaking, I pulled—and a small black splinter slid out.

“We got it!” I exclaimed.  “We got it!”

His tears drying, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, our congratulations ringing in his ears over and over again, we celebrated by indulging him in not one, not even two, but in three lollipops in a row.

And though the day ended in triumph, the process got me thinking (you know me).  This was one of my son’s earliest introductions to the fact that sometimes pain is actually necessary.  We all know life is inherently painful, but when most of us acknowledge this, we’re mostly thinking about unavoidable pain, pain that comes to us despite our best efforts to avoid it.  Far less often do we acknowledge to ourselves that sometimes pain must be willfully chosen.

But our failure to acknowledge this necessity often causes far more pain in the long run.  It prevents us from grieving our losses properly, submitting to uncomfortable medical tests and treatments, and removing splinters.  In fact, our ability to endure necessary pain and to delay gratification in general has been shown to be more strongly correlated with success than high IQ or even educational level.  Resilience of this kind may, in fact, be the key to happiness.

It’s something, at any rate, I must teach my son, that when pain is necessary we must face it courageously.  He’s still too young to appreciate the importance of this intellectually, but not too young to take his cues from me.  So when I got my flu shot this year, I was honest with him about how much it hurt.  But I took it with a smile and didn’t flinch.

“Do you like shots?” he wanted to know.

“No,” I told him.  “But I get them anyway.”

Next WeekTaking A Break

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  • So by promising a reward of candy, then giving him even more than promised, did you teach him to be courageous or about the value of resilience?

    (And man do I hate splinters.)

  • This post could not have come at a better time. I am undergoing a biopsy of my prostrate gland later this week and this evening I am feeling scared and blue. Your post is a good reminder of why I will go through with it and must deal with whatever the results show. Thanks for “pep talk.”

    Jack: You’re so welcome. Best of luck.


  • Alex—

    Of course your article illuminates a great teaching moment between a father and son. And as adults we know that somethings that are good for us are painful in the short term.

    But I think the most difficult thing for any adult is to be in a situation which is not working (be it a relationship, a current career choice or ones own habit or behavior) and know change is needed but be confused as to what is the right medicine or path to take in order to effect a positive change or order to get to a better place. In such cases one only knows that to succeed one must be committed to oneself to find the path to a better place. And sometimes that can be very scary because often the devil you know can be far less scary then a completely unknowable future, a journey in which by definition you will be traveling alone.

    The best you can hope for is a continued belief in yourself and a willingness to seek support when it gets confusing or too painful.


  • There’s a homeopathic product called Prid that’s a drawing salve for things like splinters. My friend Josie assures me it works very well with her two grandchildren. It’s in the children’s health section of the natural foods store.

  • My wife is due in December. I think some pain will be necessary in order to receive a great bundle of joy!

  • You are doctor. Why not some local anesthetic. A 25-gauge needle and t.b. syringe and it would have been much easier and only one lollipop.

  • Although I absolutely agree with you, Jack, about the pain inherent in life, I would disagree about splinters. More often than not, and if the hurting or discomfort is not too acute, it is not worth the trouble to remove such splinters at all. Disinfecting the area and letting nature deal with it on its own is way better. It either inflames a bit and the splinter slides out easily with a bit of pus after a day or two—or the tissue closes up around the splinter and rejects it painlessly after a week or so.

    I learned it the hard way and it proved time and again afterwards—even with my own kids. When I was 13 I unwittingly hit a sea urchin with the palm of my hand while diving. I had literally dozens of its spines imbedded in. The doctor and his nurse spent half a day digging them out, but had to give up on several that were too deep to extract. They simply doused my hand with disinfectant, and let it heal. There was no infection, little discomfort after a while, but I could watch the tiny spines emerge from my hand for at least a month. Mother Nature is quite a healer, and I bet there are better ways to teach your son about pain and endurance 🙂

  • Great post. I’ve noticed this is a lesson most of us have to learn over and over again—not just once. I’m pretty sure my somewhat elderly mother is the one who taught me this lesson best in my early years, yet she is currently hobbled by agony and immobility due to severe osteoarthritis, and too frightened by the additional pain of measures that might relieve her current suffering to do anything about it.

    One question I often ask myself when it comes to medical matters is: Will it do me any good to get upset about this? Almost always, the answer to that question is no. If I have to choose something painful in order to help maintain or better my health, I try to approach it as calmly as possible. Why add my own unnecessary pain to those necessarily painful moments of life?

    I must quibble with one instance of one tiny word in your post: “the.” You say, “Resilience of this kind may, in fact, be the [italics mine] key to happiness.”—I would contend that there is no single key to happiness, and from your other entries I believe you would agree with that.

  • Amen to this, Alex.

    You don’t specifically mention it, but I would say the same is true for some emotional or psychological pain. Would you agree?

    rdp: Yes.


  • Though I realize the topic of your post is about “‘necessary pain,” not really about removing splinters, I would like to provide a helpful tip for future splinter removal, which is pain free!

    This method proved effective most of the time with my own kids. The end of the splinter must be accessible, even if only the very tip end of it is protruding from the skin. If this has occurred naturally, great! If not, then a tiny bit of probing with a clean needle may be necessary for access to the tip of the splinter. Wash the area with warm water and soap. Using ordinary Elmer’s school glue, dab a drop of glue onto the area, making sure that the glue covers the protruding end of the splinter. Slightly spread the glue so that it is a thin “skin” over the area and allow ten minutes or so for it to dry completely. When dry, carefully peel the glue up in the opposite direction that the splinter entered the skin. The glue will have adhered to the splinter, and it comes right out, attached to the glue. No muss, no fuss, and kids are no longer afraid of the removal process!

  • When I was 10 years old I was hit by a car riding my bike. Almost 40 years later I can still recall the image of my parents explaining to me, in tears over my hospital bed, that I was going to have an operation to have my ruptured spleen removed. I was going to experience pain to be sure, but after that I would be better and could come home. That was a tough way to learn the lesson of necessary pain but there were no options whatsoever.

    I say life is unexpectedly painful in so many ways, let the microscopic splinters come out by themselves in the bathtub wherever possible. Is that not also a valuable learning opportunity, how the body naturally heals itself in some cases if we are patient? For most of us, regrettably, there will be more chances than we can count to teach the necessity and inevitability of physical and emotional pain to children without looking for one.

    Respectfully, to me it sounds like you (Alex) felt badly about making the boy cry and tried to make the situation better by having there be a moral to the story. Three lollipops later, all that was gained was the empirical establishment of the fact that your wife was right and the boy indeed had a too-small-to-see splinter in his hand (which you said you already knew she was correct about.)

    Soon enough your son will see you’re not perfect and he’ll be fine with it. Really, he will. Will you?

    “Teach your children well…and know they love you.”

  • A splinter falls into the “How important is it?” category with my children. They hurt to dig out. A lot. I have discovered if a splinter will not budge do not ask it to. Apply a bit of Ichthammol Ointment 20% to a band-aid, leave on overnight, next day, splinter is on band-aid! Whew.

  • My take on the key to happiness is in knowing what you are doing is worthwhile. What is worthwhile?

    Pain in childbirth is worthwhile. Pain from a biopsy that will disclose a horrible disease or not is worthwhile. Delaying eating the last piece of pumpkin pie so you can share it with your best friend is very satisfying. Living is divided into microscopic segments of either waiting, enduring, delaying or just getting stuff over with.

    I believe in just getting stuff out of the way, in particular if pain is involved. I just can’t seem to change life circumstances easily (job,relationship). There are different types of courage. I can handle physical pain any day. Emotional tears my heart out.

    Personally we hardly ever pulled splinters out—a good long soak in the bathtub for 2 nights in a row, softened it so much that it just melted away!

    However if the darned thing was stuck under a fingernail….

  • What about the pain we endure that doesn’t result in happiness? Some pain we just have to accept without the rainbow. How do you rationalize that? Chock it up to a lesson learned. Perhaps. What about the pain you feel at the loss of a loved one. No rainbows there or lessons learned. So does that fall under the category of what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger? Try explaining that to a child. I suppose pain is inevitable and without it we wouldn’t enjoy the happy as much. I just hope that happiness outweighs pain and sadness in my life and in those that may read my thoughts.

    Candy: I certainly don’t mean to paint an overly rosy picture about the experience of pain. I would certainly agree not all pain leads to increased strength and happiness. But I do think that human beings are innately endowed with the ability to create value out of any situation. One thing that painful experiences always provide us the opportunity to do is role model for others how to manage them, and to position us to encourage others from first-hand experience who may go through similar experiences in the future.