The Butterfly Effect

In the 2004 movie, The Butterfly Effect, 20-year-old Evan (Ashton Kutcher) goes back in time to try to change events from his traumatic childhood in an attempt to change his dysfunctional adulthood. The movie’s title is based on a mathematical prediction concept in chaos theory.

“In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, where a small change at one place in a nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state. The name of the effect, coined by Edward Lorenz, is derived from the theoretical example of a hurricane’s formation being contingent on whether or not a distant butterfly had flapped its wings several weeks before.

Although the butterfly effect may appear to be an esoteric and unusual behavior, it is exhibited by very simple systems: for example, a ball placed at the crest of a hill might roll into any of several valleys depending on slight differences in initial position.

The phrase refers to the idea that a butterfly’s wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that may ultimately alter the path of a tornado or delay, accelerate, or even prevent the occurrence of a tornado in another location. The flapping wing represents a small change in the initial condition of the system, which causes a chain of events leading to large-scale alterations of events. Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the system might have been vastly different.” (Wikipedia)


So what does chaos theory have to do with parenting? Besides the obvious connection between chaos and parenting, it’s about understanding the concept of “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” in other words, the power of early parenting choices to affect a child’s future.

It is a well-documented fact that early childhood experiences powerfully influence later adulthood. A childhood marred by abuse, violence, trauma, has profound implications in adulthood. From continued cycles of abuse to depression and other mental illnesses to relational and life-satisfaction issues, the negative effects are often far-reaching and destructive.

Not so well-documented is how the smaller differences in ‘initial conditions,’ or early parenting choices, can have significantly divergent outcomes. In these cases, it isn’t abusive or neglect-filled childhoods versus normal childhoods that create the different outcomes, but instead more subtle differences in parenting that may have differing and often unforeseen long-term effects.

One family may breastfeed, another formula-feed. One family may bed-share, another room-share, while another sleeps entirely separately. One family may homeschool, another chooses private school, while another chooses a public education. One family may discipline through connection, another through negative or positive reinforcement, while another may focus on punitive behavioral controls. Each parenting choice is a different ‘initial condition’ which can affect the overall trajectory of a child’s life in powerful ways with the resulting ‘valley’ of adult behavior, relationships, career choices, etc. varying widely.

It is beyond the scope of this article to go into the many studies that have connected specific parenting choices with their statistical outcomes. Here are some links to studies on the long-term causal effects of breastfeeding, spanking, and a Harvard study on health as it pertains to early childhood experiences. But just the understanding that our decisions as parents do have a long-range impact on our children’s futures is enough to encourage careful consideration in making those decisions.

The goal in parenting, however, can never be perfection because we are imperfect people raising imperfect people in an imperfect world. So, while being aware of the import of our decisions and making wise, educated choices is important, it is just as important to expect and account for parental missteps. Our mistakes can, in fact, become a vital part of raising our children to be gracious, forgiving adults. If we model taking personal responsibility for our mistakes along with forgiving ourselves, then our missteps can become virtual ‘butterflies’ on the slope into adulthood, redirecting the trajectory of our children’s lives in a positive direction.

That concept, the redirective effect of the ‘butterfly’ on the slope into adulthood applies elsewhere, as well. If we find that parental choices we’ve made in the past have sent our children in a direction we are unhappy with, we can redirect by setting in motion a butterfly’s wings, in other words, we can shift our parenting style and reroute the trajectory of our children’s lives.


Here are a few illustrations of The Butterfly Effect as it applies to parenting redirections…

A young girl with dyslexia comes home from school day after day in tears, exhausted and overwhelmed, only to have to spend hours at night struggling through homework, more tears, and then get up the next day to do it all over again. Her father realizes that with his daughter’s unique learning style, traditional schooling is like teaching a butterfly to swim, with the result that his little butterfly’s wings would be forever damaged, and she’d never learn to fly. He turns his life upside down to make the time to homeschool her and find ways to emphasize her strengths and turn her weaknesses into gifts. His daughter transforms from a withdrawn child with low self-worth into a confident young lady soaring into a bright future.


A young mother brings home a precious newborn she loves with every fiber of her being. She wants the absolute best for her child and has read book after book saying that proper training of a child has to start right from the beginning. It hurts her all the way down to her soul as each night she gently and lovingly tucks her sweet baby into his crib and walks away, closing the door on his cries and sliding down onto her knees in the hallway to spend night after sleepless night crying right along with him. After the first torturous nights, she finds that her baby isn’t nursing well on the strict schedule the books suggested, and her milk supply hadn’t come in as expected. The pediatrician diagnoses failure-to-thrive and suggests supplementing with formula. As the young mother leaves the doctor’s office in tears, feeling like her body has failed her, an older mother sees her distress and approaches her in the parking lot. When the young mother pours out her story, the older mother shares her own struggles and discoveries over the years, ending by encouraging the young mother to bring her baby into her room at night and nurse him on demand to see if her milk supply increases. The young mother is relieved to hear there are alternatives to the rigid training methods she’d read about. She takes the older mother’s advice and, over the next days discovers that not only does her milk supply increase substantially, but both her and her new baby are finally getting some sleep! She tosses the parenting books and spreads her parenting wings, parenting from the heart, making every parenting decision by first asking herself how she would want someone to respond to her if she were the child. Her son grows up strong and healthy, with a deep respect and empathy for others.


A father is struggling with his three-year-old’s temper. He has poured himself into raising his daughter ‘right’ from birth, reading her stories every night, feeding her nutritious foods, getting her into the best preschool, correcting her with carefully controlled spankings dealt in love and followed by hugs and kisses. As he heads to pick up his daughter from preschool, his stomach tightens in dread. For the second time that week they’ve called him to report another incidence of aggressive behavior by his daughter, and he knows when they get home he’ll have to punish her. He sighs in discouragement. She used to be such a sweet, bubbly little girl. Now she just seems to simmer, anger hovering just beneath the surface ready to burst out at the slightest provocation. He signs his daughter out, then reaches out to help her into her coat. She flinches at his touch and flings her tiny hands up instinctively to protect herself. For one moment, their eyes meet, and the father’s heart freezes. Fear. Ever so briefly, instead of that too-familiar anger clouding his little girl’s eyes, fear had stared back at him. Feeling sick, the father gently helps his daughter into her coat and picks her up, hiding his tears by hugging her close as he walks to the car. Never again, he vows. Never again will his precious daughter look at him in fear. At home, he sits his daughter down and tells her that he’s sorry, that hands are for helping, not hitting, and that they’re going to work together to find better ways to handle things when people don’t do what they want. His daughter’s anger eases over time and trust returns. She grows into a compassionate young woman, serving her community with a gentle passion that wins hearts everywhere she goes.


In each case, the parent was faced with the reality that the track their parenting choices had placed their child was on wasn’t optimal, and each parent responded by shifting course and altering the trajectory of their child’s lives, in turn altering their child’s future in immeasurable ways.

The message here is this…our parental choices matter. They matter in life-defining ways that we can’t even imagine when we wrap those precious new lives in the cocoon of our love and set them on a path which we hope and pray will help them to spread their wings and fly. Choose wisely, parents, and don’t be afraid to change course in mid-flight if the winds are blowing in the wrong direction.