A Riddle

Did you ever hear this riddle when you were growing up?

A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies instantly, and the son is taken to the nearest hospital. The doctor comes in and exclaims, “I can’t operate on this boy.” “Why not?” the nurse asks. “Because he’s my son,” the doctor responds. How is this possible?

Here’s the answer, below…

The doctor is the boy’s mother.

When I was growing up in the eighties, the riddle stumped almost everyone. I remember spending ages mulling it over. It really seemed like a riddle. Now it seems so obvious!

Interestingly, in 2010, Good Morning America told the riddle to adults on the streets of New York—and the majority of them didn’t get the right answer. But then the producers asked 17 fifth graders, and the majority of them got it right. Plus, the kids who got it “wrong” guessed that the surgeon was either the boy’s stepdad or that the boy’s parents were both dads.

Thoughts? Did you get it?

P.S. On a similar note: This is What a Scientist Looks Like.

(Photo by Kerry Murray)

  1. I knew it was his mother! Nice riddle Joanna. Okay I’m going to share one with you, if you like it let me know! Cant Be Touched

  2. My 5th grade daughter is huge into riddles right now and recited this one to me just this morning. Before I could even give an answer, she immediately said “i know! its so easy! why is that even called a riddle?!” explaining how it stumped me when I was her age sent her off to school shaking her head in dibelief.. served with a tiny side of disappointment. I loved it.

  3. I use this riddle a lot in my workshops and trainings, esp on diversity and inclusion in the workplace. It’s CRAZY to me that some people don’t get it and still look confused when I give them the answer. What’s funny, is that sometimes people will say, “God” or “a priest”, but have a hard time thinking of it being his mother. It’s a great way to talk about bias in a way that’s not as off-putting as others.

  4. I was born in the late 80s, however, my mother was a strong believer in seeking female doctors for herself and her children.

    When I was little, I had to go to a specialist and when I met him, I said:
    “Hmm, I didn’t know that boys could be doctors, too!”

    I’m glad to know more small children could be having a similar experience! Especially with more women enrolled in medical school these days!

  5. I asked my 10-year-old niece this question recently, and she answered immediately, “His other daddy, of course!” Seeing such progress in our own lifetime is so amazing. Interesting to think the issue of gay marriage has seemingly leapfrogged over women’s equality in this case, though…

  6. Ok , so I am a psychiatrist , I just tried this riddle on my son who is 8 years old , his answer was , the doctor is you mommy . So I’m doing my best not to psychoanalyze this to death , trying to think of it in a concrete way how ever did he get this in a abstract way of thinking? The perks of being a psychiatrist !!

  7. I’m a female surgeon, and remember bring stumped by this riddle as a kid.

    As an aside, we can in fact operate on family members in an emergency. Certainly if someone else were around better to have them do it, but for some of us who work outside of major cities we may nor have a choice.

  8. I got it right away but my husband was puzzled :D.

  9. I did get this because I remember it as a kid being told on the Cosby show. Anyone remember that episode?? Cliff didn’t get it either, but Claire Huxtable points it out to him at the end. lol.

  10. I saw this on the Cosby Show. Love Phylicia Rashad as Claire Hanks-Huxtable Esq. ‘Til this day, I wish I could be her, amazing style as well…I stay up at night rolling my hair and painting my nails to be so lady-like and confident (I’m 23 by the way.)

  11. much to my chagrin, I did not get it….and I’m a female doctor! Aaarggh!!

  12. I had never heard this riddle, but those are such great news! I don’t know if it is because they are just children or because we are really changing, but both things would seem like a great improvement.
    With love,

  13. I know I heard this when I was younger, but when I read it just now, I kept trying to remember the answer (because I used to know it!) and couldn’t do it. I wonder if I had never heard it before, if I would have gotten it.

    Also, I understand why a lot of readers are saying that this riddle emphasizes the fact that old stereotypes are still ingrained in our heads, and that children are simply more open-minded. While that may be the case, I actually think it has more to do with the differences in children and adults, and how our brains process information. For instance, when many adults hears this riddle (myself included), the part that stumps us is that we have just heard the word “son” used in relation to his father. So for the rest of the riddle, we associate the son to the father, and imagine they are the only two characters in the story (making this a successful riddle). However, when a child hears it, they aren’t so stumped by the bounds of a story. They can separate the sentences, and don’t make as many associations. When they hear that the doctor can’t operate on “my son”, they are able to see the sentence alone and out of context. And, obviously, sons have two parents!

    Maybe I am wrong, but that was my first thought on the difference in how children hear the riddle, as opposed to adults. I think this stuff is so interesting! :)

  14. Wow I didn’t get this one. Although I am really bad at riddles.

  15. In the 10 seconds I pondered the answer before I clicked through, it didn’t occur to me that the physician was the mom, and I AM A MOM AND A PHYSICIAN/SURGEON!!

  16. I remember seeing it on the Cosby Show as a kid and getting it immediately (in the 80’s!). I just thought it was the boys that didn’t get it back then, Jo!

  17. I have heard this riddle before. I didn’t get it for ages, but when I was told, it was so obvious and I couldn’t believe I didn’t get it. I am studying to be a nurse and then am going to study medicine afterwards, which made me feel bad for not getting it myself. It does make you think about the gender assocation with different job titles. However, I also believe that the mention of many male titles in the riddle plays a huge part in why people may assume the answer is associated with a male.


  18. I’m a female medical student and I didn’t get this, which is hilarious.

  19. i guessed he was the grandpa!
    i love riddles, can you do more posts on them sometime? your blog is my little daily treat!

  20. I was stumped for longer than I care to admit when my brother asked me this riddle 20 years ago- a month before I (a woman) started medical school. Also at the table? My mother, also a physician. It is seared in my memory as a reminder of all my subconscious biases. Of note, I heard it with “surgeon” not “doctor,” and I’ll bet fewer of those 5th graders would have gotten the answer using that word. We still have a long way to go.

  21. Hmm, the future’s looking brighter then? Very interesting!

  22. I kid you not, I was thinking the EXACT same thing about this very riddle just yesterday. Even just a handful of years ago when I was in high school it stumped people. I HOPE it’s finally becoming an obvious answer :)

  23. I remember this from being a kid, and I am so happy to see that kids had such good & creative answers. 2 dads! AMAZING! We have come so far.

  24. Surprisingly, I was stumped by the riddle. When I read your answer, it was a total palm to forehead reaction–of course it’s the mom! Curious about your statement that children answered correctly, I asked my 5 year old daughter if she knew the answer and she immediately said the doctor was the mom. Glad to see gender stereotypes haven’t effected her yet.

  25. Lady scientist-in-training here. Thank you, Joanna, for including the link to This Is What A Scientist Looks Like. :D

  26. YES! I heard this years ago, and it seems to obvious now, but at first I sadly was stumped.

    It sparks a good conversation about gender roles in the workforce and how women and men are perceived differently, doesn’t it?

  27. My father told me this riddle when I was a child in the early nineties and I solved it instantly. Conversely, when my grandmother was told this riddle she was completely stumped. And she was a gynaechologist!

  28. I’m not saying that I’m super smart, but I absolutely remember getting this riddle from when I was younger. I attribute this to the fact that my father and mother always made me feel like I could do and be anything, and that being a woman was an asset not a barrier.

  29. I’ve always loved riddles. The one you posted is a long time favorite.
    Here is one for you…
    A plane crashes on the border of the US and Canada. Where do they bury the surivivors?

  30. Oh my gosh! I’m so bad with riddles, I’d got instantly the answer rather to think, so lazy!

  31. I remember this from when I was a kid. it’s stuck with me, actually, because it really challenges your assumptions. looking forward to sharing it with the girls when they understand what a riddle even is…

  32. Stumped me – totally assumed the DR was male.

  33. Argh! I accidentally read the answer before I had a chance to think about it!

    But I have sent it to my husband, he loves a good puzzle/riddle. :)

  34. My mom told us that riddle when we were kids. I remember thinking AH-HA!

  35. I heard this riddle on an episode of The Cosby Show when I was a kid. Cliff got it wrong and Claire delighted in telling him the correct answer. :)

  36. I remember hearing this riddle on “The Cosby Show” when I was a girl. No one could figure it out except Claire Huxtable. Oh man, how much did you love Claire Huxtable?

  37. I think this is really interesting. When my daughter was three, she told her psychiatrist grandmother that “ladies can’t be doctors,” and I was astonished–because her pediatrician is a doctor, and we are friends with many female physicians, both by chance and because my husband is a physician (who, obviously, trained with and is friends with many women!). I am at home with her, although I do freelance editorial and translating work when she is asleep. After that day I started really emphasizing what I had thought was obvious–that women can do anything–and also that I work–just not when she is awake!

  38. Easy peasy to figure out, but I work in medicine. I am a female physician assistant (29 years old) and I get called “nurse” far more often than being mistaken for a doctor. Despite the fact that I wear a white lab coat and function very similar to a physician. While our male PA (who is in his 40s) regularly gets called “doctor”

  39. I remember that. His mom was a doctor so she couldn’t operate on him.

  40. Wow — Is it bad that I’m a (female) doctor, and I didn’t get it?

  41. I guessed that one of the parents was the biological father and the other was the adoptive one. This riddle just brings to attention that there are still so many gender stereotypes to overcome, ones that we don’t even mean offensively or know we have! -Audrey | Brunch at Audrey’s

  42. I too remember this riddle. Love that the one child who got it “wrong”, was only wrong because he guessed the child had parents of the same sex or a stepdad.. In the 80s these would never have been an option. Glad that in today’s society these are acceptable, and the younger generations don’t even think twice about it. Hope for humanity!


  43. Haha, I remember my dad telling me this as a kid, and I didn’t get it, because my mom was a doctor!

  44. I remember this riddle from The Cosby Show. Cliff couldn’t figure it out, but Claire got it quite easily and embarrassed Cliff in the process of answering it. It’s one of my favorite moments from The Cosby Show.

    I found the clip!

  45. Joanna and I are about the same age (I’m 34) and I remember this riddle well from school. At the time I couldn’t get it, and I still remember the kids coming up with all sorts of weird theories, such as a ghost dad. I am so glad to see that it doesn’t stump kids anymore.

  46. I’ve never been good a riddles, so I didn’t get it either. But then, it is 9am and I’m not really awake yet.

  47. Haha! I got it immediately – but then again I’m a pediatrician and a woman and practically everyone I know are doctors. I’d love to hear my friends kids answers though, they probably won’t even get why it’s a riddle seeing that most of them have a doctor as a mom! :-D

  48. haha I am re-watching old episodes of The Office lately and I think Michael Scott tells this joke!

  49. How interesting that children and adults answer so differently! I had heard it before and did eventually guess the right answer, but only have seriously thinking about it!

  50. So interesting! I have also thought about this riddle lately for just this reason, considering the times and wondering, “would adults or kids now be able to better answer this riddle than when I was a kid?”

    I definitely get it now but notice that I’m still influenced by the culture during my childhood.

  51. I’m so embarrassed to say my first instinct was to think, “The guy in the car was a priest?”

    What a dope. I’m glad I’m not smarter than a 5th grader on this one…

  52. This riddle was actually featured in an episode of “All in the Family”, so mid-1970s. I remember being stumped (yes, i saw it in real-time). So sad that it can still stump people, but refreshing that there are a variety of answers (2 dads, step-dads). Family life changes in beautiful ways.

  53. Funny how riddles work – I first heard this one as “a father” and “a son” so the answer is supposed to be the father in the car was actually the son’s GRANDfather (but father to the dad/doctor).

  54. How sad that we used to associate with doctors as being a male dominant role. One of the best things about modern day is that we have become more open and acceptant towards other beliefs and ideals. And, women are becoming more empowered! I think that discrimination will always exist, as its human nature. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the attudide of the majority of our population. Let’s make a change!

  55. Dang, this doesn’t work in spanish! :) Also, the 5th graders ROCK.

    I have another:

    Following an anonymous call, the police raid a house to arrest a alleged murderer. They do not know how he looks like, but they know his name is John and that he’s inside the house. Police find four people playing poker: one dedicated to woodworking, the second is a truck driver, the third one a mechanic and the last one is a firefighter. Without any questions, without hesitation, the police immediately arrest the firefighter. How they were sure they arrested the right person?

  56. I remember this very riddle from an episode of the Cosby Show. Dr. Huxtable (sp?) got it wrong, and Claire rubbed it in his face with her typical gracious charm. Claire Huxtable is my favorite TV mom/wife. Other than Tammy Taylor.

  57. We had done this riddle 5 years ago in school – in a class full of 18-year-old girls. I do remember that I was one of the few, who solved it. This was a bit a shocking, as all the girls in this classroom were strong women.
    The riddle was a bit different to this one, as the mother was a mayor. This is an even stronger example I think.

  58. We had done this riddle in my school, in a class full of 18 year old girls. I think I was one of the few who solved this riddle by then.
    It was a bit different, instead of a doctor the mother was a mayor – i think this is an even stronger example.

  59. When I worked at the university we worked with kids and asked them to draw a scientist. The scientists in the pictures were nearly always male scientists. That’s what the society and the media teaches children.

    Love, Nina

  60. I’m over 50 yrs old but I got it even when I was a little kid & the reason is because I had a female pediatrician. I’m convinced that is why. Thank goodness about the 5th graders….

  61. I remember this one from a book of riddles I had as a kid–sad to think it was considered a brain teaser! I love that the younger generation easily got this!

  62. I love that kids today introduce a two-dad family scenario without a second thought. It’s so awesome and interesting to see how this riddle shifts to reflect our ever-evolving societal views :)

  63. Oh man am I disappointed in myself for not getting this one, especially as a future doctor myself (the PhD kind, that is). Thankfully you included “This is what a scientist looks like” at the end of this post to cheer me up! Thanks for helping spread us spread the word that we scientists should not be pigeonholed!

  64. I remember that one from elementary school! That one and “A plane crashes on the border of the United States and Canada. Where are the survivors buried?” (Survivors aren’t buried. They are alive.) Very Encyclopedia Brown.

    When I was a middle school teacher, I asked my kids this doctor riddle and the survivors one the first week of school. I told them I hoped they would become better readers and writers in the coming year, but I would be most proud of my work if they became better thinkers.

  65. Of course, the doctor could have also been the boy’s OTHER dad. Hello 2014!!

  66. wow. that is super interesting. glad to know this generation’s children are growing up with a new mindset.

  67. I got it instantly as well and doubted myself that the answer was too obvious. What a fun little Wednesday morning read. Thanks for making me think differently this morning Joanna!

  68. Very interesting. So we are making a little progress.

  69. I got it. But it’s possible I remember being told this riddle as a child (we had a teacher who was big on riddles) and I don’t think I got it then :)

  70. Hah, I got it instantly- but wasn’t sure as it seemed just too obvious. Wow, how times have changed for the better.

  71. I tend to hate riddles, because I can never figure them out! But this one was really interesting…Because it made me realize how ingrained the job title “doctor” goes with being male…It looks like that study with 5th graders is showing that the younger generation is less apt to associate job titles with gender; good news!