The Chaos Theory of Parenting
A butterfly flaps its wings in New Zealand, and I end up late for work.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t entirely the butterfly’s fault. It really started, one morning last week, with my eldest daughter and her talent for sleeping through an alarm clock. Literally, this is her super power. An alarm clock could be buzzing right next to her ear, and nothing. Which probably has something to do with her penchant for staying up late to finish homework. Which may or may not have been on abstract mathematics.
Our typical morning routine has a predictable linear structure. (I know it is redundant to call a routine typical, as that’s the nature of a routine, but this is Science not English). Child 1 ostensibly gets up at 6:15 a.m., to be on the bus at 6:52. Children 2 and 3 rise from their slumber when child 1 departs, and they get on their bus at 7:40. That’s when child 4 awakes, his bus arriving at 8:12, which he dutifully boards.
I call this predictable structure the Ordered Family model. And it works well on paper. In reality, it rarely occurs.
Here’s a sample of our reality through the lens of one particular day last week when my wife just happened to be away on business.
And this was the best time of all. The alarm went off at 6:15 a.m. as planned. Our oldest child didn’t move, however. Unplanned. Then it went off again. And again. When she did finally move, she announced she needed a shower because “it had been a few days.” We have an unwritten rule that we never stop a kid from cleansing themselves. Still, the shower was unplanned. And it ate up precious seconds.
Long story short: she missed the bus. So, of course, I had to drive her. I woke the two younger ones, who are just barely old enough to be left home alone, and ordered them to get ready as I took the eldest to the High School.
When I got back, the house was still standing and everyone was alive, but nobody was ready for the middle school bus, now just moments way. So, I quickly threw together their lunches, prodded them to brush their teeth and get dressed, and then I watched as the bus pulled away while they sat at our counter nonchalantly eating breakfast. Bus missed.
To take them to school, I had to wake the boy, as he cannot be left alone for everybody’s sake. Once his sisters were deposited at middle school. We went back home to get him out of his PJs and ready for his bus, which he missed. So, it was back in the car and to the third school of the day to drop off yet another child.
By the time I got home, I had exactly zero minutes to get showered, dressed and off to work. Needless to say, I was late. Like, really late.
That’s when it occurred to me the similarities between math’s Chaos Theory and the way my wife and I are as parents: the Chaos Theory of Parenting.
This theory is not so much a planned philosophy or a framework as an observational reality. And it’s one that can be witnessed by spending even a single morning at our house… or an afternoon… or any given Saturday.
In mathematics, Chaos theory is used to describe dynamic systems where minor variations in initial variables can cause wildly different outcomes. It’s been popularized by the analogy known as the Butterfly Effect: A butterfly flaps its wings and that results in a hurricane half a world away. A little farfetched, I know. But smarter people than I claim it works.
I find it easier to understand Chaos Theory by thinking about the game Plinko on the Price Is Right. That’s the one where the lucky contestant drops a round chip down the Plinko board and it bounces around rather unpredictably until it reaches the bottom. In reality, the reaction of the Plinko chip to its surroundings is quite predictable, scientifically speaking, if you know all the precise variables, which include the speed of the chip, the friction of the board, the angle it hits the first peg, and the second peg, etc. The Chaos comes in when even the slightest variation in any one of those variables dramatically changes the path of the Plinko chip. I like the Plinko analogy because I feel like a Plinko chip going down the board on a daily basis.
The Plinko Theory of Parenting isn’t as catchy
The difference is that in Plinko there are only five possible outcomes. While in life, and in parenting, there are infinite. Kid 3 could miss the bus. Kid 2 could leave without gloves and have to stay in for recess. Kid 4 could forget his homework, and his parents could get a call from the teacher. Dad could be late so often that he gets fired, and the whole family could have to move to another state. Anything could happen. All based on Kid 1 sleeping through her alarm and a host of other initial variables.
I tried to explain this to said kids in the car on the evening of the particular day in question.
“Have any of you heard of the Butterfly Effect?” I asked.
“Yes,” replied the high schooler. “Isn’t that how a butterfly on one side of the world can cause a hurricane on the other?”
“Yes!” I responded, almost gleeful.
“Wait,” said the 12-yr-old. “I learned in science that the weather is caused by high and low pressure in the atmosphere?”
“It is,” I stated, trying to think how to marry the two thoughts. “This is before all that.”
“What kind of butterfly?” asked the 10-yr-old.
“That doesn’t matter,” I replied.
“So, butterflies cause high pressure fronts?” asked the 12-yr-old, confused.
“I thought you told us once that hurricanes are caused by extreme low pressure,” said the high schooler.
“I did.” God save me. “I was just mentioning the Butterfly Effect to relate it to our mornings and making the bus.”
“What do butterflies have to do with the bus?” asked the 10-yr-old.
“Look, take our typical morning routine…”
“Doesn’t the word routine imply that it’s typical?” pondered the high schooler, in a condescending way.
“Ugh,” I grunted.
The 10-yr-old recollected, “Remember when we went in the butterfly tent at the fair?”
“Yes. Look, it’s just that if one of you misses the bus, it can make me late for work.”
“Um. I still don’t get what this has to do with the weather,” said the 12-yr-old.
“You know what, never mind.”
“I have to pee,” said the 8-yr-old.
So, rather than accurately describing Chaos Theory to my kids, I showed them an example of it in conversation form.
Not that they need to be shown. Because, the truth is, you can look at almost any aspect of our lives and find discernable examples of chaos.
You could be observing us on what seems like an otherwise quiet evening when an unexpected (but predictable) variable occurs, like someone yelling, “Oh My God! We forgot soccer practice!”
And then we suddenly find ourselves scrambling to get our tween to her indoor soccer practice, and the whole plan for dinner is out the window and half our kids are crying because they’re hungry and haven’t started their homework. All because one of us had to run to the store after work to get an ingredient for the dinner we now aren’t making and, in the frenzy, simply forgot it was a practice day.
Come to think of it, the ingredient we were missing was chicken broth. And we were out of it because I’d made soup the day before. I made soup because it was raining. It was raining because of a big storm that had hit the whole coast. So, it may well have been the fault of a butterfly, after all.
Clearly, I have only a rudimentary understanding of the real Chaos Theory, however I’ve found that with proper use of vagueness and big words, anyone can sound like they’re an expert on theoretical mathematics.
Parenting, on the other hand, is not quite so easy.