Perturbed Parenting Theory

Most parenting advice only works in theory. Because most parenting advisors are too busy branding new theories. In fact there are now more parenting theories than parents because of bloggers trying new titles until one of them gets a book deal. Unfortunately most “parenting theories” are “chemical-free food”: an idiot trying to sound smarter by using their only extra word wrong. The only way to get eat chemical-free is to shove your face into a fusion reactor, and the word “theory” doesn’t actually mean “here’s what I think but I want it to sound smarter.”

Most are these “theories” are presented as absolute truth despite having only one data point, and “N=1”is how science says you’re the one who needs to stop talking. A real theory explains reality in a way which generates testable predictions. Most parenting theory predictions are “I bet I can extract some cash from some sleep-deprived suckers.”

The most cursed example is “A Theory of Objectivist Parenting”. Parenting tip: when someone refers to “the young human beings we temporarily refer to as children” CALL THE POLICE and tell them to prepare their best or most expendable psychologists.

For real theories you need math and science. And they’ve already solved the most common parenting problem! Which shouldn’t be a surprise. Mathematicians worked out the shape of spacetime before we even knew that was a thing. They just got busy with all the fun figures and arrangements before realizing it really was the stuff of our continued existence. That’s just like becoming a parent!

There’s a real mathematical theory far too many parents already use without even knowing it, never mind understanding it. Which is a shame because it’s truly terrible for children. Even the name sounds upsetting: Perturbation Theory. (Though we should note that perturbation theory is like an oxyacetylene torch: it works brilliantly and solves lots of problems, it’s just a terrible way of dealing with kids).

Perturbation theory approaches complicated problems by starting with a much simpler solution and adding a little bit of effort to deal with all the extra complications. This is a terrible way of dealing with children! Perturbation theory then proceeds by adding several smaller and smaller bits then ignoring all but the largest. This is an even more terrible way of dealing with children!

Trying the simple solution with its little bit extra in the complicated problem generates a gigantic amount of fiddly extra work, which we mostly ignore. (You can see why we use this strategy so often). But it still leaves a lot of work. It’s the mathematical version of working harder instead of smarter. You just crunch more numbers instead of fixing the fundamental problem. And that’s fine! Sometimes you don’t need a better theory. Sometimes you just need an approximate answer.

The problem is that perturbation theory only works for simple things like astrophysics, quantum mechanics, and radioactive materials. It doesn’t work on children. It’s been used to detect entire worlds orbiting distant stars, because those distant worlds really are negligible changes to their parent stars. But real children aren’t planets of their parents, they’re brilliant black holes, and even less negligible when one enters your life.

We’ve all seen or been the perturbed parent. Busy, or tired, and trying to act as if the child just isn’t there, folding laundry or scrolling through their phone like they would on their own and adding a little adjustment by saying “quiet!” or “leave that alone!” every five seconds. Which never works. Despite their size a child isn’t a small change in any system. A child is an autonomous and utterly ignorant engine of change. And the worse this diverges from the fantastical theory of “I’ll just act like the kid isn’t there” the more perturbed everyone gets until everything breaks down.

The problem is that their “simple solution” is the simpler situation of not having a kid. You can’t tweak that into a parenting strategy! That’s the exact opposite of any possible parenting strategy! Perturbation theory only works when the addition is extremely small compared to the existing solution, but some small additions utterly destroy everything which worked about the original, like Scrappy Doo.

This leads to the true value of theories, the unsung strength which can improve our lives. We always hear about the theories which revolutionized our understanding of the universe or our ability to read things on our phones. Because those theories were right. But the most important aspect of theorizing is that we can find out when a theory is definitely wrong. The perturbation theory of parenting is definitely wrong. When you know a theory’s wrong you can just rub it out and start again instead of wasting your life angrily headbutting a blackboard you never even read in the first place. When you work out what you’re doing, when you recognize perturbed parenting and how it fails, you can simply stop, let go, stop acting like your child is negligible, and start thinking with them to find a real solution.

BONUS article: Extra Epsilons for Perturbed Parenting!

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