30 - 12 RULES FOR LIFE | RULE 5
Do Not Let Your Children Do Anything That Makes You Dislike Them
This is part 5 of my review for the book “12 Rules For Life” by Dr. Jordan B Peterson, who is a professor at the University of Toronto, and a clinical psychologist.
In this phenomenal book, Peterson journeys broadly; discussing discipline, freedom, adventure, and responsibility, distilling the world’s wisdom into 12 practical and profound rules for life. This is an introduction to philosophy, mythology and the science of the mind, and a practical, engaging guide to a better life.
Stream this episode through the player above. Read the notes and follow the basic transcription below.
(3:33) - There’s just no talking to parents about their children—until they are ready to listen.
(6:00) - Mr Rogers is an effective role model for parenting who leads by example
(10:15) - 1st Section: Actually It’s Not OK
(13:20) - Everybody Hates Arithmetic
(16:50) - The Ignoble Savage
(25:15) - Parent Or Friend ?
(40:20) - Discipline & Punishment
(48:30) - Minimum Necessary Force
(50:20) - Limit the rules to what, exactly?
(56:06) - Penalties for misbehavior
(105:22) - A Summary Of Principles
(113:15) - The good child & the responsible parent
ACTUALLY, IT'S NOT OK.
THE INTERNAL CRITIC
This chapter begins with a bunch of storied examples from Peterson’s observations upon encountering some unsavory situations involving children/parent power-play dynamics. I’ll site two of them here and leave the rest for you to read. There’s a lot of insights to learn from the context provided by this content.
Recently, I watched a three-year-old boy trail his mother and father slowly through a crowded airport. He was screaming violently at five-second intervals—and, more important, he was doing it voluntarily. He wasn’t at the end of his tether. As a parent, I could tell from the tone. He was irritating his parents and hundreds of other people to gain attention. Maybe he needed something. But that was no way to get it, and his parents should have let him know that.
You might object that “perhaps they were worn out, and jet-lagged, after a long trip.” But thirty seconds of carefully directed problem-solving would have brought the shameful episode to a halt. More thoughtful parents would not have let someone they truly cared for become the object of a crowd’s contempt.
I have also watched a couple, unable or unwilling to say no to their two-year-old, obliged to follow closely behind him everywhere he went, every moment of what was supposed to be an enjoyable social visit, because he misbehaved so badly when not micro-managed that he could not be given a second of genuine freedom without risk.
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 to teach him what “No” means, he had no conception of the reasonable limits enabling maximal toddler autonomy.
EVERYBODY HATES ARITHMETIC
My clinical clients frequently come to me to discuss their day-to-day familial problems. Such quotidian concerns are insidious. Their habitual and predictable occurrence makes them appear trivial. But that appearance of triviality is deceptive: it is the things that occur every single day that truly make up our lives, and time spent the same way over and again adds up at an alarming rate. One father recently spoke with me about the trouble he was having putting his son to sleep at night—a ritual that typically involved about three-quarters of an hour of fighting.
We did the arithmetic. Forty-five minutes a day, seven days a week—that’s three hundred minutes, or five hours, a week. Five hours for each of the four weeks of a month—that’s twenty hours per month. Twenty hours a month for twelve months is two hundred and forty hours a year. That’s a month and a half of standard forty-hour work weeks.
My client was spending a month and a half of work weeks per year fighting ineffectually and miserably with his son. Needless to say, both were suffering for it. No matter how good your intentions, or how sweet and tolerant your temperament, you will not maintain good relations with someone you fight with for a month and a half of work weeks per year. Resentment will inevitably build. Even if it doesn’t all that wasted, unpleasant time could clearly be spent in more productive and useful and less stressful and more enjoyable activity.
How are such situations to be understood? Where does the fault lie, in child or in parent? In nature or society? And what, if anything, is to be done?
Peterson then continues on to describe in a fair amount of detail what some ideas and strategies might be in order to bring some harmony into play here before going into more depth in the next section.
THE IGNOBLE SAVAGE
It has been said that every individual is the conscious or unconscious follower of some influential philosopher. The belief that children have an intrinsically unsullied spirit, damaged only by culture and society, is derived in no small part from the eighteenth-century Genevan French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was a fervent believer in the corrupting influence of human society and private ownership alike. He claimed that nothing was so gentle and wonderful as man in his pre-civilized state.
At precisely the same time, noting his inability as a father, he abandoned five of his children to the tender and fatal mercies of the orphanages of the time. The noble savage Rousseau described, however, was an ideal—an abstraction, archetypal and religious—and not the flesh-and-blood reality he supposed.
Human beings are evil, as well as good, and the darkness that dwells forever in our souls is also there in no small part in our younger selves. In general, people improve with age, rather than worsening, becoming kinder, more conscientious, and more emotionally stable as they mature.
There is plenty of direct evidence that the horrors of human behaviour cannot be so easily attributed to history and society. This was discovered most painfully, perhaps, by the primatologist Jane Goodall, beginning in 1974, when she learned that her beloved chimpanzees were capable of and willing to murder each other (to use the terminology appropriate to humans).
Bluntly put: chimpanzees conduct inter-tribal warfare. Furthermore, they do it with almost unimaginable brutality. Chimps don’t have much of a super-ego, and it is prudent to remember that the human capacity for self-control may also be overestimated. Careful perusal of a book as shocking and horrific as Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, which describes the brutal decimation of that Chinese city by the invading Japanese, will disenchant even a committed romantic.
Because children, like other human beings, are not only good, they cannot simply be left to their own devices, untouched by society, and bloom into perfection. Even dogs must be socialized if they are to become acceptable members of the pack—and children are much more complex than dogs. This means that they are much more likely to go complexly astray if they are not trained, disciplined and properly encouraged. This means that it is not just wrong to attribute all the violent tendencies of human beings to the pathologies of social structure. It’s wrong enough to be virtually backward.
Children can be damaged as much or more by a lack of incisive attention as they are by abuse, mental or physical. This is damage by omission, rather than commission, but it is no less severe and long-lasting. Children are damaged when their “mercifully” inattentive parents fail to make them sharp and observant and awake and leave them, instead, in an unconscious and undifferentiated state.
Children are damaged when those charged with their care, afraid of any conflict or upset, no longer dare to correct them, and leave them without guidance. I can recognize such children on the street. They are doughy and unfocused and vague. They are leaden and dull instead of golden and bright. They are uncarved blocks, trapped in a perpetual state of waiting-to-be.
PARENT OR FRIEND ?
More often than not, modern parents are simply paralyzed by the fear that they will no longer be liked or even loved by their children if they chastise them for any reason. They want their children’s friendship above all, and are willing to sacrifice respect to get it.
Parents are the arbiters of society. They teach children how to behave so that other people will be able to interact meaningfully and productively with them.
It is an act of responsibility to discipline a child. It is not anger at misbehavior. It is not revenge for a misdeed. It is instead a careful combination of mercy and long-term judgment. Proper discipline requires effort—indeed, is virtually synonymous with effort.
We assume that rules will irremediably inhibit what would otherwise be the boundless and intrinsic creativity of our children, even though the scientific literature clearly indicates, first, that creativity beyond the trivial is shockingly rare and, second, that strict limitations facilitate rather than inhibit creative achievement.
Belief in the purely destructive element of rules and structure is frequently conjoined with the idea that children will make good choices about when to sleep and what to eat, if their perfect natures are merely allowed to manifest themselves. These are equally ungrounded assumptions.
Children are perfectly capable of attempting to subsist on hot dogs, chicken fingers and Froot Loops if doing so will attract attention, provide power, or shield them from trying anything new. Instead of going to bed wisely and peacefully, children will fight night-time unconsciousness until they are staggered by fatigue. They are also perfectly willing to provoke adults, while exploring the complex contours of the social environment, just like juvenile chimps harassing the adults in their troupes.
Observing the consequences of teasing and taunting enables chimp and child alike to discover the limits of what might otherwise be a too-unstructured and terrifying freedom. Such limits, when discovered, provide security, even if their detection causes momentary disappointment or frustration.
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 naive. 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. It’s easy. It’s peace that is difficult: learned, inculcated, earned.
People often get basic psychological questions backwards. Why do people take drugs? Not a mystery. It’s why they don’t take them all the time that’s the mystery. Why do people suffer from anxiety? That’s not a mystery. How is it that people can ever be calm? There’s the mystery. We’re breakable and mortal. A million things can go wrong, in a million ways. We should be terrified out of our skulls at every second. But we’re not. The same can be said for depression, laziness and criminality.
If I can hurt and overpower you, then I can do exactly what I want, when I want, even when you’re around. I can torment you, to appease my curiosity. I can take the attention away from you, and dominate you.
It’s foolish to assume that such behaviour must be learned. A snake does not have to be taught to strike. It’s in the nature of the beast. Two-year-olds, statistically speaking, are the most violent of people. They kick, hit and bite, and they steal the property of others. They do so to explore, to express outrage and frustration, and to gratify their impulsive desires.
More importantly, for our purposes, they do so to discover the true limits of permissible behaviour. How else are they ever going to puzzle out what is acceptable? Infants are like blind people, searching for a wall. They have to push forward, and test, to see where the actual boundaries lie (and those are too-seldom where they are said to be).
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. Careful analysis of the musculature patterns of crying children has confirmed this. Anger-crying and fear-or-sadness crying do not look the same. They also don’t 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.
DISCIPLINE AND PUNISHMENT
Here Peterson elaborates through behavioural psychology about how it’s not only possible to discipline with reward, but in fact, very effective to reward good behaviour.
Modern parents are terrified of two frequently juxtaposed words: discipline and punish. They evoke images of prisons, soldiers and jackboots. The distance between disciplinarian and tyrant or punishment and torture is, indeed, easily traversed. Discipline and punish must be handled with care. The fear is unsurprising. But both are necessary. They can be applied unconsciously or consciously, badly or well, but there is no escaping their use.
Emotions, positive and negative, come in two usefully differentiated variants. Satisfaction (technically, satiation) tells us that what we did was good, while hope (technically, incentive reward) indicates that something pleasurable is on the way. Pain hurts us, so we won’t repeat actions that produced personal damage or social isolation (as loneliness is also, technically, a form of pain).
Anxiety makes us stay away from hurtful people and bad places so we don’t have to feel pain. All these emotions must be balanced against each other, and carefully judged in context, but they’re all required to keep us alive and thriving. We therefore do our children a disservice by failing to use whatever is available to help them learn, including negative emotions, even though such use should occur in the most merciful possible manner.
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.
Parents who refuse to adopt the responsibility for disciplining their children think they can just opt out of the conflict necessary for proper child-rearing. They avoid being the bad person (in the short term). But they do not at all rescue or protect their children from fear and pain.
Quite the contrary: the judgmental and uncaring broader social world will mete out conflict and punishment far greater than that which would have been delivered by an awake parent. You can discipline your children, or you can turn that responsibility over to the harsh, uncaring judgmental world—and the motivation for the latter decision should never be confused with love.
The question of adult authority must be answered with care. Why should a child be subject?
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 grown-ups is willing to bestow. Given this, it is better for the child to act in a manner that invites genuine affection and goodwill. Something even better might be imagined.
At this point, Peterson offers a lot of thought provoking perspectives. Such as, if a child has not been taught to behave properly by the age of four, it will forever be difficult for him or her to make friends. The research literature is quite clear on this. He then goes on to elaborate at length upon the literature.
MINIMUM NECESSARY FORCE
Here’s a straightforward initial idea: rules should not be multiplied beyond necessity. Alternatively stated, bad laws drive out respect for good laws. This is the ethical—even legal—equivalent of Occam’s razor, the scientist’s conceptual guillotine, which states that the simplest possible hypothesis is preferable.
So, don’t encumber children—or their disciplinarians—with too many rules. That path leads to frustration.
Limit the rules. Then, figure out what to do when one of them gets broken.
A single brilliantly practical principle can be used to generate all these incrementally more severe reactions: that of minimum necessary force. So now we have two general principles of discipline. The first: limit the rules. The second: Use the least force necessary to enforce those rules.
About the first principle, you might ask, “Limit the rules to what, exactly?” Here are some suggestions ...
Do not bite, kick or hit, except in self-defence. Do not torture and bully other children, so you don’t end up in jail. Eat in a civilized and thankful manner, so that people are happy to have you at their house, and pleased to feed you. Learn to share, so other kids will play with you. Pay attention when spoken to by adults, so they don’t hate you and might therefore deign to teach you something. Go to sleep properly, and peaceably, so that your parents can have a private life and not resent your existence. Take care of your belongings, because you need to learn how and because you’re lucky to have them. Be good company when something fun is happening, so that you’re invited for the fun. Act so that other people are happy you’re around, so that people will want you around.
A child who knows these rules will be welcome everywhere.
Here Peterson encourages us to learn about how different children respond to disciplinary intervention. It’s very easy to mouth clichés instead, such as: “There is no excuse for physical punishment,” or, “Hitting children merely teaches them to hit.” But Peterson again encourages us to go further and do better.
The penalties for misbehavior (of the sort that could have been effectively halted in childhood) become increasingly severe as children get older—and it is disproportionately those who remain unsocialized effectively by age four who end up punished explicitly by society in their later youth and early adulthood.
Those unconstrained four-year-olds, in turn, are often those who were unduly aggressive, by nature, at age two. They were statistically more likely than their peers to kick, hit, bite and take away toys (later known as stealing). They comprise about five per cent of boys, and a much smaller percentage of girls.
To unthinkingly parrot the magic line “There is no excuse for physical punishment” is also to foster the delusion that teenage devils magically emerge from once-innocent little child-angels. You’re not doing your child any favors by overlooking any misbehavior (particularly if he or she is temperamentally more aggressive).
And what about the idea that hitting a child merely teaches them to hit? First: No. Wrong. Too simple. For starters, “hitting” is a very unsophisticated word to describe the disciplinary act of an effective parent. If “hitting” accurately described the entire range of physical force, then there would be no difference between rain droplets and atom bombs. Magnitude matters—and so does context, if we’re not being willfully blind and naïve about the issue.
Timing, part of context, is also of crucial importance. If you flick your two-year-old with your finger just after he smacks the baby on the head with a wooden block, he will get the connection, and be at least somewhat less willing to smack her again in the future. That seems like a good outcome. He certainly won’t conclude that he should hit her more, using the flick of his mother’s finger as an example. He’s not stupid. He’s just jealous, impulsive and not very sophisticated. And how else are you going to protect his younger sibling?
If you discipline ineffectively, then the baby will suffer. Maybe for years. The bullying will continue, because you won’t do a damn thing to stop it.
You’ll avoid the conflict that’s necessary to establish peace. You’ll turn a blind eye. And then later, when the younger child confronts you (maybe even in adulthood), you’ll say, “I never knew it was like that.” You just didn’t want to know. So, you didn’t. You just rejected the responsibility of discipline, and justified it with a continual show of your niceness.
So where does all this leave us?
With the decision to discipline effectively, or to discipline ineffectively (but never the decision to forego discipline altogether, because nature and society will punish in a draconian manner whatever errors of childhood behavior remain uncorrected).
So here are a few practical hints: time out can be an extremely effective form of punishment, particularly if the misbehaving child is welcome as soon as he controls his temper. An angry child should sit by himself until he calms down. Then he should be allowed to return to normal life. That means the child wins—instead of his anger.
The rule is “Come be with us as soon as you can behave properly.” This is a very good deal for child, parent and society. You’ll be able to tell if your child has really regained control. You’ll like him again, despite his earlier misbehaviour. If you’re still mad, maybe he hasn’t completely repented—or maybe you should do something about your tendency to hold a grudge.
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. A child can 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.
There are some situations in which even that will not suffice, partly because some children are very determined, exploratory, and tough, or because the offending behaviour is truly severe. And if you’re not thinking such things through, then you’re not acting responsibly as a parent. You’re leaving the dirty work to someone else, who will be much dirtier doing it.
A SUMMARY OF PRINCIPLES
Limit the rules.
Use minimum necessary force.
Parents should come in pairs.
Raising young children is demanding and exhausting. Because of this, it’s easy for a parent to make a mistake. Insomnia, hunger, the aftermath of an argument, a hangover, a bad day at work—any of these things singly can make a person unreasonable, while in combination they can produce someone dangerous.
Under such circumstances, it is necessary to have someone else around, to observe, and step in, and discuss. This will make it less likely that a whiny provocative child and her fed-up cranky parent will excite each other to the point of no return.
Here’s a principle that is more particularly psychological: parents should understand their own capacity to be harsh, vengeful, arrogant, resentful, angry and deceitful. Very few people set out, consciously, to do a terrible job as father or mother, but bad parenting happens all the time. This is because people have a great capacity for evil, as well as good—and because they remain willfully blind to that fact.
People are aggressive and selfish, as well as kind and thoughtful. For this reason, no adult human being—no hierarchical, predatory ape—can truly tolerate being dominated by an upstart child. Revenge will come.
Ten minutes after a pair of all-too-nice-and-patient parents have failed to prevent a public tantrum at the local supermarket, they will pay their toddler back with the cold shoulder when he runs up, excited, to show mom and dad his newest accomplishment. Enough embarrassment, disobedience, and dominance challenge, and even the most hypothetically selfless parent will become resentful.
And then the real punishment will begin. Resentment breeds the desire for vengeance. Fewer spontaneous offers of love will be offered, with more rationalizations for their absence. Fewer opportunities for the personal development of the child will be sought out. A subtle turning away will begin. And this is only the beginning of the road to total familial warfare, conducted mostly in the underworld, underneath the false façade of normality and love.
A parent who is seriously aware of his or her limited tolerance and capacity for misbehaviour when provoked can therefore seriously plan a proper disciplinary strategy—particularly if monitored by an equally awake partner—and never let things degenerate to the point where genuine hatred emerges. Beware.
There are toxic families everywhere. They make no rules and limit no misbehaviour. The parents lash out randomly and unpredictably. The children live in that chaos and are crushed, if they’re timid, or rebel, counterproductively, if they’re tough. It’s not good. It can get murderous.
Here’s a final and most general principle: parents have a duty to act as proxies for the real world—merciful proxies, caring proxies—but proxies, nonetheless. This obligation supersedes any responsibility to ensure happiness, foster creativity, or boost self-esteem.
It is the primary duty of parents to make their children socially desirable. That will provide the child with opportunity, self-regard, and security. It’s more important even than fostering individual identity.
THE GOOD CHILD—AND THE RESPONSIBLE PARENT
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 other kids welcome her and compete for her attention, and 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.
You can judge suitable from unsuitable. You realize the difference between good and evil. Having clarified your stance—having assessed yourself for pettiness, arrogance and resentment—you take the next step, and you make your children behave. You take responsibility for their discipline. You take responsibility for the mistakes you will inevitably make while disciplining. You can apologize, when you’re wrong, and learn to do better.
You love your kids, after all. If their actions make you dislike them, think what an effect they will have on other people, who care much less about them than you. Those other people will punish them, severely, by omission or commission. Don’t allow that to happen. Better to let your little monsters know what is desirable and what is not, so they become sophisticated denizens of the world outside the family.
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.
Clear rules make for secure children and calm, rational parents. Clear principles of discipline and punishment balance mercy and justice so that social development and psychological maturity can be optimally promoted.
Clear rules and proper discipline help the child, and the family, and society, establish, maintain and expand the order that is all that protects us from chaos and the terrors of the underworld, where everything is uncertain, anxiety-provoking, hopeless and depressing. There are no greater gifts that a committed and courageous parent can bestow.
Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
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