This article corresponds with the video but is not a verbatim transcript. For timestamps see the time [0:00] at the top of each section throughout the article. Resources are linked chronologically throughout the piece. Additional resources not mentioned in the video are included chronologically and a full list is at the bottom.
Shefali Tsabary – Impact Theory [Opening clip is from 5:14 of her interview]
I just finished reading Peterson’s new book, 12 Rules for Life (actually I finished in January, but this analysis and making the video took 4 months). And it’s pretty fantastic overall, definitely consistent with his online content and principles. With one exception. Peterson’s perspective on youth and parenting is quite complex and baffling. Chapter 5 – Don’t let your children do anything that makes you dislike them – is the closest we get to a “parenting chapter” in the book. Here, Jordan takes his typical principles of autonomy, advocacy for individual rights, self-determination and actualization, and when it comes to children- he throws all that out the window.
For a book about self-determination of the individual, it’s directly contradictory to the goal to deny the need for autonomy in childhood. If we continue the cycles of traumatic, punitive parenting, young adults will need to go through intensive healing journeys at the beginning of their paths, and this robs us of the incredible opportunities an autonomous, spacious and playful childhood has to offer.
With children, it becomes about dominance and control of kids. Thus, in comes this analysis where I will break down his perspective for a better understanding, and compare it to the data and philosophy within trustful parenting and youth advocacy.
Before we get into Peterson’s work, let’s take a look at a resource to more clearly define parenting styles, and understand the needs of youth. In Dr. Peter Gray‘s book, Free to Learn, he defines three types of parenting:
Additionally on directive-domineering parenting:
So JBP has a particular aim in mind that directs his focus on the topic. Dr. Peterson’s aim is child obedience for the convenience of adults. There are three factors driving him toward this goal:
On socialization, on some level he knows that having no better options and relying on convenience are flimsy supports for punitive parenting- which mimics the dictator-subordinate relationship he criticizes so heavily in society. Therefore, he needs a damn good reason to support such parenting. His idea takes the idea of parental support and involvement in a kid’s life to a more intensive level, arguably extreme. And he believes this is necessary for the child’s development. A few quotes will illustrate his idea more clearly:
“First why should a child be subject?” (to adult demands) “That’s easy. Every child must listen to and obey adults because he or she is dependent on the care that one or more imperfect grownups is willing to bestow. Given this, it is better for the child to act in a manner that invites genuine affection and goodwill.” (p. 134, Peterson)
What’s implied here is pragmatic- an uncomfortable truth- that most parents do not have the skills, resources or consciousness to take on the profound burden of parenting in a culture ignorant to the needs of kids. It’s fundamentally expected that a parent will snap at their kids, fall apart, spin out and get hooked into an unconscious or even past-trauma reaction.
It’s almost a survivalistic perspective to suggest kids should craft themselves to be as caretaking and socially accepted as they can muster for the sake of suffering and limited parents. I’m going to compare this to a few quotes from The Conscious Parent by Shefali Tsabary:
“Traditional parenthood has been exercised in a manner that’s hierarchical. The parent governs from top down. After all, isn’t the child our lesser to be transformed by us as the more knowledgeable party? Because children are smaller and don’t know as much as we do, we presume we are entitled to control them. Indeed we are so used to the kind of family in which the parent exercises control, it perhaps doesn’t even occur to us that this arrangement might not be good for ourselves or our children.” (p. 6)
“In other words, while you may believe your most important challenge is to raise your children well, there’s an even more essential task you need to attend to, which is the foundation of effective parenting. This task is to raise yourself into the most awakened and present parent you can be. The reason this is central to good parenting is that children don’t need our ideas and expectations, or our dominance and control. Only for us to be attune to them with our engaged presence.” (p. 10)
So now let’s get into Peterson’s perspective, first by looking at his Summary of Principles at the end of Chapter 5:
[7:08] p. 142-143
Rule 4 really stands out; it’s powerful and abrasively honest without dramatizing or minimizing. Between that and the first two rules we build a conflicting “tug-o-war” image of Dr. Peterson’s perspective, in that he tends towards the authoritarian parenting role but ideally seeks to reserve himself as much as possible. Rule 5 continues in quotes:
“It is the primary duty of parents to make their children socially desirable. This will provide the child with opportunity, self-regard, and security. It’s even more important than fostering individual identity. That holy grail can only be pursued, in any case, after a high degree of social sophistication.” (p. 143)
This is completely contrasted by Shefali and Dr. Gray’s perspectives, and the reality is kids absolutely need the space for free, independent play to develop their self-control, sense of worth, personality and their own life. It’s backwards to think you could raise a child into independence by externally controlling everything in their life, and much worse, to interfere with their vulnerable, personal internal development of their own being. If you don’t think Peterson takes it this far, let’s go further with another quote:
“Children can be damaged as much or more by a lack of incisive attention as they are by abuse, mental or physical. This damage is by omission rather than commission, but is no less severe and long-lasting. Children are damaged when their ‘mercifully’ inattentive parents fail to make them sharp, observant and awake, and leave them instead in an unconscious and undifferentiated state.” (p. 122)
One of his biggest faux pas is conflating trustful parenting with neglectful parenting. This is a common mistake or even purposeful judgment coming from the punitive and authoritarian perspective. In Peterson’s dependence on punitive parenting, he tends to reduce everything outside of that model to “permissive”. And here, he takes it to an extreme end of even his own perspective by suggesting the very opposite of Dr. Tsabary- that children are left unconscious if parents don’t actively intervene with their internal development of self. Let’s contrast this with another quote from Shefali:
“Instead of meeting the individual needs of our children, we tend to project our own ideas and expectations onto them, even when we have the best intentions of encouraging our children to be their true selves. Most of us unwittingly fall into the trap of imposing our agenda on them. Consequently, the parent-child relationship frequently deadens a child’s spirit instead of enlivening it. This is a key reason so many of our kids grow up troubled, and in many cases, plagued by dysfunction.” (p.3)
In addition, another quote from Dr. Gray:
“Lack of free play may not kill the physical body as would lack of food, air, or water, but it kills the spirit and stunts mental growth. Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems, and generally take control of their own lives. It also primary means by which children practice and acquire the physical and intellectual skills that are essential for success in the culture in which they are growing. Nothing that we do, no amount of toys we buy or quality time, or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn through their own initiatives through free play cannot be taught in other ways.” (p. 5)
Screenshot from video clip – Play in the Snow 1945 from archive.org
Take a good look at the end. Nothing can replace autonomy- which is a vital human need as well as the umbrella for all human rights. No amount of material goods can repair damage done by disrespect of one’s autonomy. It is one of the most shockingly traumatizing experiences a person can have, to feel their autonomy is threatened. That being said, Peterson does have some sense of childhood autonomy and at times we get a glimpse of this:
“The fundamental moral question is not how to shelter children completely from misadventure and failure, so they never experience any fear or pain, but how to maximize their learning so that useful knowledge may be gained with minimal cost.” (p. 132)
He acknowledges here that inhibiting children in the protective-directive style is damaging because he values competence and responsibility so much that more space and opportunities when he views the situation through that lens. Even so, much of the time he instead views a situation or even a kid through the lens of punitive parenting. Let’s take an example to show this in action. At the beginning of the chapter he describes watching parents in public follow their toddler around as he explored. He says:
“The desire of his parents to let their child act without correction on every impulse perversely produced precisely the opposite effect. They deprived him instead of every opportunity to engage in independent action. Because they did not dare teach him what no means, he had no conception of the reasonable limits enabling maximal toddler autonomy. It was a classic example of too much chaos breeding too much order, and the inevitable reversal.” (p. 114)
He makes it sound like he’s watching this one-time incident, yet assumes the parents interact with their kid this way every time. He calls their lack of action a lack of “correction” to assume the parent is objectively right, then labels the kid’s choices as impulse. So the evolutionary development of autonomous, lively independent play in human beings that took millions of years is just… impulsive. Second to that, before socialization it’s impulsive, and after socialization his choices become “independent action”.
Then he says the phrase “they did not dare teach him what No means”. Peterson references this concept frequently throughout the chapter and in much of his online content around children. In my analysis to understand what he means by this vague phrase, I’ve found that he trains kids with the word no in a Pavlovian sense, by associating No with a punishment repeatedly (as opportunities arise) until No itself packs a punch. Thus, he uses No as a tool of control for the child’s behavior. Further than that, take a look at this section:
“A parent can only say No to a child who wants a third piece of cake because he or she is larger, stronger and more capable than the child and additionally backed up by authority of the state and law. What No means in the final analysis, is that ‘If you continue to do that, something you do not like will happen to you’. Otherwise, it means nothing. Or worse, it means ‘another nonsensical nothing muttered by ignorable adults.’ Or worse still, it means ‘All adults are ineffectual and weak.'” (p. 139-140)
This is the most clarifying quote on Peterson’s perspective here. It’s particularly revealing of his insecurities in the authoritarian position. He has to bolster himself up as the one in power- the only alternative in JBP’s mind is to be perceived as weak by his kids. And it’s unlikely the kid will share this perception- that is often unique to an insecure, punitive parent stuck in the narrow role of cartoon dictator.
Becoming dependent on punishment and rigid authority is disempowering to both the parent and the kid, because now the autonomy/boundaries of both are entangled, getting worse over time as the conflict stunts development of parent, kid, and their relationship. It takes a lot more work to upkeep the failing corrupting structure of authoritarian parenting than it does to invest in symbiotic relationships that grow stronger over time.
Jordan has a tendency to conflate the kid’s autonomy with an attempt at dominating the parent. This is psychological projection because he is trying to dominate the child. Yet when the kid says NO to this and attempts to negotiate or responds in pain from this experience, he ignores it. Or worse, labels it misbehavior, branding the kid’s pain/suffering as wrong while simultaneously minimizing it.
There are better ways of teaching your kid No than in the dictatorial sense. You can instead teach No in an autonomous sense. When your kid sets boundaries around their body or choices, you can show respect for this actively in the moment. You might ask “honey do you want a hug?” and they say “no!” so you respond, “Sure, that’s fine.” This also has the benefit of increasing social comfortability and decreasing awkwardness around personal boundaries.
So now let’s take a closer look at Jordan’s tendency to project – to mistake the child’s will for self-direction as an attempt at dominating the parent. Let’s take a look at this quote:
“Imagine a toddler repeatedly striking his mother in the face. Why would he do such a thing? It’s a stupid question. It’s unacceptably naïve. The answer is obvious. To dominate his mother. To see if he can get away with it. Violence, after all, is no mystery. It’s peace that’s the mystery; violence is the default.” (p. 125)
It’s incredible how much he digs in with this quote on insisting that his hypothesis on child-dominance is so obvious and intuitive. Why not ask questions to understand what they’re experiencing? Furthermore, to build an empathic understanding of what the kid actually is going through. As a toddler, their physical development could be beyond their communication and empathy. In a vast exploratory stage, hitting doesn’t stand out until the kid starts forming empathic concepts around this experience.
Beyond that, if this continues as they get older, it’s usually a sign of abuse, trauma, or some kind of intensive conflict and suffering that should be addressed with care and curiosity. To reciprocate physical outbursts from your kid with punishment or abuse is only going to make matters much worse. Just as Jordan needs more tools in his toolbox to interact peacefully with kids, children need more tools in their toolboxes to interact peacefully with other people.
Let’s take another example from Peterson’s perception of child-dominance:
“Scared parents think that a crying child is always sad or hurt. This is simply not true. Anger is one of the most common reasons for crying. Anger-crying and fear or sadness-crying do not look the same. They also do not sound the same and can be distinguished with careful attention. Anger-crying is often an act of dominance, and should be dealt with as such.” (p. 128)
This assumes the child is motivated maliciously simply because of a response to their suffering. This is a perverse interpretation, and if your default response to your kid’s suffering is to perceive them as maliciously motivated, then you will likely response poorly and unempathically. This also means that if a kid is angry their suffering is less acceptable than if they are scared, sad, or hurt. But the reality is, all of these emotions are valid as part of the human experience- regardless of age. If a person is attempting to use guilt, manipulation, bullying or threats to win, this can be discerned well beyond reliance on emotion. And once again, in this case it is the parent trying to dominate the child.
As the adult, ideally Peterson would lead by example by empathizing with the kid’s suffering. After all, the world is full of suffering. Peterson knows this, which makes the fact of a kid in pain and suffering a lot more innocent. When you yell at your kid, are they really the one trying to dominate you? You might not even be trying to dominate your kid. You might have just snapped, stressed out to the limit, breaking under the pressure of exhaustion, or existential pain.
When you snap at someone in the midst of this pain, are you trying to dominate them? Or are you hoping for more space in your life and support to get your needs met? Are you a man starving in the desert, hoping for water after much suffering? It is the human condition, and children are not separate from that.
So, I was really baffled at Peterson’s profound cognitive dissonance in championing the autonomy and empowerment of the individual while proposing authoritarian, punitive ways of interacting with kids. I really could not reconcile this glaring contradiction, so I set it aside while playing with this project. At one point in its evolution a greater understanding hit me suddenly. I realized that Peterson views kids less as individual living humans and more like objects that the individual, often the parent, should organize into order within their own lives. To put it otherwise, Jordan wants you to clean up your kids like you clean up your room.
To exemplify what I’m talking about, let’s look at a section at the end of the chapter:
“A properly socialized three-year-old is polite and engaging. She’s also no pushover. She evokes interest from other children and appreciation from adults. She exists in a world where kids welcome her and compete for her attention. Where adults are happy to see her, instead of hiding behind false smiles. She will be introduced to the world by people who are pleased to do so. This will do more for her eventual individuality than any cowardly parental attempt to avoid day-to-day conflict and discipline.” (p. 143)
It’s almost as if he’s fantasizing about the perfect child, crafted by careful and dedicated molding of the parents. He also conflates abstaining from punitive discipline with avoidance of conflict. I would suggest that top-down control is a way of avoiding conflict, by yelling and screaming until you get what you want. Or maybe you stay calm, but still rigidly push your point until one of your strategies makes the other person cave. This ignores what the kid is actually going through, what they need, and ignores your needs as well. After all, you as the parent have needs too. If you were honest about your needs, and empathized with your child’s needs, a symbiotic solution could be reached that is mutually respectful. But let’s go further into Jordan’s perspective:
“A child who pays attention instead of drifting and can play and does not whine, and is comical but not annoying, and is trustworthy, that child will have friends wherever he goes. His teachers will like him and so will his parents. If he attends politely to adults, he will be attended to, smiled at, and happily instructed. He will thrive, in what can so easily be a cold, unforgiving and hostile world.” (p. 144)
It’s just such a fantasy. Earlier in the chapter he criticizes Jean-Jacques Rousseau heavily on his concept of “the perfect child” that is born intrinsically good and corrupted by society. Yet when JBP talks about socialization, he creates an equally outlandish myth of the perfect child post-socialization that barely connects with what happens in reality. In the best case scenarios, kids (and families) will put on a good show while hiding dysfunction within the ignored areas of their lives and psyches.
And to think that Peterson, or anyone for that matter, could achieve this goal authentically through punishment and extrinsic motivators with their kids is ridiculously unrealistic. Alfie Kohn, author of many books including Unconditional Parenting: Beyond Reward and Punishment, shows how reward and punishment are two sides of the same coin, and have equally damaging effects on our kids:
“When kids do something inappropriate, most of us feel a need to take some action rather than doing nothing. Therefore if our repertoire is limited to punishment, that’s what we end up doing by default.” (p. 103)
“The first thing to understand is that rewards are remarkably ineffective at improving the quality of people’s work or learning. A considerable number of studies have found that children and adults alike are less successful at many tasks when they’re offered a reward for doing them, or for doing them well.” (p. 32)
Alfie Kohn on Oprah Full Clip [Video Section is from 4:46-5:39]
Considering this reality, it’s amazing how many parents continue to rely on reward and punishment even as they get less effective over time. Many parents (and other adults) that rely on the punitive way of interacting with kids don’t give themselves opportunities to interact in different ways. They never get to see the results of negotiation instead of manipulation, empathy instead of demands- actually being a full human being beyond the caricatural role of dictator. If you’re skeptical of the science of reward and punishment, even Peterson himself has some understanding of the effects:
If it’s traumatizing, why would anyone do that to their kids ever? If it’s traumatizing, this is stunting the development of the kid, and most likely leads them to continue the cycle of traumatized parenting in the future (or traumatized interaction with others).
This is the cycle of unconsciousness in human beings, and it’s tragic and it’s heartbreaking- and it’s no life worth living. This continues a lot of unnecessary suffering, simply by being unwilling to take a good honest look at yourself and your limitations. And especially looking honestly at the terrifying experience of becoming a parent in society. When it’s the kid, the parent and society and they all come together chaotically, vulnerably, it can be damn scary to look at what’s happening without covering it up or making pretty.
But to have the courage to pursue that, a physiological shift in slowing down, pausing, to see what is- as it is- is the path of becoming more awake and open in our daily lives. This is what Shefali talks about in The Conscious Parent. (Other recommended resources: Daring Greatly by Brené Brown, When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön)
In the spirit of taking an honest look, let’s read closely a quote towards the end of Peterson’s Chapter 5:
“If your child is the kind of determined varmint who simply runs away laughing when placed on the steps, or in his room, physical restraint might have to be added to the time-out routine. The child may have to be held carefully but firmly by the upper arms, until he or she stops squirming and pays attention. If that fails, being turned over a parent’s knee might be required. For the child who is pushing the limits in a spectacularly inspired way, a swat across the backside can indicate requisite seriousness on the part of a responsible adult.” (p. 141)
That was the point where I had to put the book down and walk away. I was faced with the recognition that a person I admired and found rare wisdom within, especially on facing up to suffering and attaining self-determination, this is the same man that could be so cruel in his way of interacting with kids, so callously devoid of empathy and curiosity. Part of what made this section so hard on the first reading is that I immediately empathized with the kid from their perspective. My first reaction was: why didn’t you ask me what I was going through? Why didn’t you ask questions to communicate, to understand? Ask something, anything before trying to force a kid to act a certain way.
Let’s take a look at a story from Chapter 12 about Peterson’s daughter, Mikhaila. She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at around 8 years old, and the process of getting specialty care and finding doctors that could actually resolve the issue alongside the debilitating suffering she endured really makes this story an existential trip.
This quote illustrates Peterson’s tendency to extend space for autonomy when he is viewing the situation through his values for competence and responsibility. Protective-directive parents would likely be appalled at the idea of teaching a kid to give themselves a shot. Kudos to Dr. Peterson for this one.
This is really important, because it shows JBP on the path to conscious awakening. He still applies thinking to his “noticing” strategy, which is in-between pure observation and thought, but for a highly cerebral person (over-thinker) like Peterson, this is significant. He recognizes the failure of thinking to magically change things.
So Mikhaila’s disease started to get better for a while, but then new problems arose and it got much worse:
I’m going through this story to show an intensive example of Peterson actually recognizing the pain and suffering of a kid, as she’s growing up through a longterm serious health limitation. Jordan has challenged himself to be supportive and conscious enough to take on the burden of this existential suffering. The journey had clearly profound moments of awakening. This is an example where the quality of your Being (not Peterson’s definition, but being as presence, as consciousness) is directly tied to your relationships with your kids.
Now, imagine if Peterson hadn’t empathized with Mikhaila’s pain and suffering here. Imagine if he didn’t recognize the early signs. Remember what he said about deprivation of autonomy (liberty) and he still supported it; remember what he said about anger-crying and dominance. Her suffering could have been much worse. In this case, the physical problems were immense enough that a basic truth could not be denied. But in cases of emotional suffering, in the cases of trauma and existential suffering, it’s a lot harder to recognize empathically. Especially if your default lens is to assume the other person is attempting to dominate you.
This is pretty intense and vulnerable, and very personal, to look at Peterson’s own family. He’s been ridiculously transparent and open for a person so slandered and twisted in the public eye, and to have become so famous so abruptly. I have no desire to burn Jordan at the stake, and every desire to be open and honest when pursuing this topic. When you actually dare to take the path towards truth, the most comforting route is honesty as it stands, which is softened by your own vulnerability.
In summary, Peterson aims for child obedience for the convenience of the adult- not even the needs of the adult or the child but the subjective, “small mind” desires of the parent. Between two and three, Peterson’s lens prevents him from empathizing with the kid and understanding their needs, thus propels him further into the authoritarian parenting role.
I would like to offer alternate perspectives and resources. I’m not going to criticize the only tool in your toolbox (reward and punishment) without offering anything new. Let’s try to explore as many possible choices and resources for productive, peaceful relationships with kids and youth going into the future.
First, take note of a kid’s strong, consistent, long-lasting drive for playfulness. What a resource! Instead of viewing this often excited and chaotic tendency as a burden, seeing it as a resource can help reframe your way of exploring the situations that arise, and thus finding better solutions to problems.
Secondly, I’d like to reframe the focus away from the child as the problem and towards the social infrastructure (meaning the network of relationships, the “cultural machine”). It is my hypothesis that the social framework of society (most cultures) is in opposition to the needs of kids, and therefore the needs of the family. Recognizing this reality, you can detach from the pressure of enforcing demands on kids produced by societal neglect, and instead take a look at the whole context.
What are the needs of each person? Try to empathize on this level and you will find more symbiotic ways of meeting everyone’s needs, instead of trying to zero in on the kid as the problem.
The more you do this, the more you will find yourself and your kids in symbiotic, fulfilling contexts. Instead of kids being dragged along as an afterthought, they too will have a place they belong and are welcomed. And even in situations where you find yourself limited and stuck, being honest and going through those painful experiences with your kids afterwards will help them empathize with your limitations. All of which has longterm benefits and builds strong, authentic relationships.
Alright guys, that’s it. We’ve reached the end of this insane journey. I wish you all the best in your adventures in cleaning up your rooms and pursuing meaningful paths. Let’s end on a high note.
“Realization is dawning. Instead of playing the tyrant, therefore, you are paying attention. You are telling the truth instead of manipulating the world. You are negotiating instead of playing the martyr or the tyrant. You not longer have to be envious, because you no longer know that someone else truly has it better. You no longer have to be frustrated, because you have learned to aim low and to be patient. You are discovering who you are and what you want, and what you are willing to do. You’re finding the solutions to your particular problems that have been tailored to you personally and precisely. You are less concerned with the actions of other people, because you have plenty to do yourself. Attend to the day, but aim at the highest good.” (p. 110-111)
12 Rules for Life by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson
The Conscious Parent by Shefali Tsabary
Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn
Free to Learn by Dr. Peter Gray
Shefali Tsabary – Impact Theory [Opening clip is from 5:14 of her interview]
Play in the Snow (1945) from archive.org
Alfie Kohn on Oprah Full Clip [Video Section is from 4:46-5:39]
End music is from PIANOLOVE III. by Nemo Sundry (Creative Commons – Attribution)