Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Chaos Theory, Butterfly Wings and Immigrant Parenting!

In 1972, Edward Norton Lorenz, mathematician and meteorologist, articulated what has come to be known as chaos theory. This intriguing hypothesis, with applications in such disciplines as physics, economics, biology, philosophy and meteorology, assumes a systemic connectedness in the universe and asserts that large influences can sometimes result from very small, seemingly unrelated actions within a system. In the attempt to figure out why long-range weather forecasting was such an unpredictable business, Lorenz first spoke of the impact of the flapping of a sea gull’s wing on the formation of a hurricane; later, using more vivid and relatable imagery, he coined the phrase “butterfly effect” to explain how small actions in atmospheric systems could be responsible for vast and unanticipated changes. Lorenz asked: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a hurricane in Texas?”

Although I have had considerable experience with chaos of several distinct types, I am, of course, far out of my league in even bringing up such topics. On the other hand, along my chaotic mental pathways, I thought of Lorenz’s “butterfly effect” recently, while talking with a young Albanian friend of mine. The thirty-something young man was married a few years ago; in addition to his new wife, when he said “I do,” he received a pre-teen son, his new wife’s child from a previous marriage. Since they married, the new couple has conceived a baby of their own, just two years ago. So this guy has gone from being single, with no kids, to being married and the father of two kids in very short order. Perhaps now you can understand why my mind bolted toward chaos theory!

My Albanian friend is very concerned, because he wants to do a good job in this most daunting of human responsibilities - fatherhood. He told me that, judging from his own experience as a son, he needed to improve on the parenting model that his father had given him. Although I tried to remain neutral, his firm conviction is that the autocratic, distant, dictatorial and physically abusive pattern which he inherited from his dad leaves much to be desired.

I was very impressed that this young guy wanted very much to be a “good dad” and was so excited about all that he is learning in this regard. He told me, for example, that he has learned never to hit his child in the face. He has concluded that, when all other means have been exhausted and it is necessary for him to use corporal punishment on his older stepson, he will only paddle him on the behind. He also said that he has decided that he will only tell the older boy to do something a couple of times. If the boy still refuses to do what he wants him to do, he will not instruct him endlessly, but will simply move the child to a select place and impose what you and I might call a “time out” in this “punishment zone.”

Knowing that Albanian immigrants in Athens have precious few resources of any kind and even fewer on subjects such as child-rearing, I asked him where he was getting this learning. This is when the “butterfly wing” flitted across the screen of my mind! My Albanian friend told me that he learned these parenting devices from television. Since he is mostly unemployed these days, with the Greek economic system in the toilet, he has lots of time to watch TV, while his wife is at her job and he is home with the kids. On television, he loves to watch that program where the British Nanny comes to the home of the parents who are having trouble with their kids. She observes the kids acting out and checks to see how the parents are handling the misbehavior. After a few days, the Nanny makes suggestions and institutes new behavior management regimes.

As my friend spoke, I almost could hear the flap of butterfly wings! I couldn’t help but wonder if, when this young man and his wife used their hard-earned money to buy that television, they had any idea how this “entertainment device” might help to shape the all-important emotional development of their kids. You can tell me that these basic child-rearing lessons are small or simplistic or perhaps still very unsophisticated. You can tell me that this guy still has a long way to go. But Lorenz and I will tell you that the tiny flap of a butterfly wing can change the weather!