Jordan Peterson on parenting

In Response to Jordan Peterson’s Parenting Advice (Rebuttal)

I have many concerns with Jordan B. Peterson's advice on parenting. Going into his book, I already knew that my views on the matter differed, but I didn't expect it to be by such a wide margin.

Full disclosure: I have little experience with children. However, studying how one can best raise children has been a focus of mine for more than 5 years. I partly pursue this because it's a great form of self-therapy and partly because I want to eventually use what I learn to be the best parent I can be (if I ever become one).

It's also worth noting that I was once a child and I've spent a lot of time trying to make sense of that time. Because of this, I think I can bring a special, though by no means complete, perspective on the subject. 

Introduction

In his book, particularly chapter 5, JBP promotes the use of behaviorism on children. To be clear, this is a parenting style that is already the norm. Everyone I know was raised with this method, including me. Most parents do use rewards and punishments to get children to behave and to "teach" them to stay out of danger. Under threat, they are made to say please and thank you, share with others, be quiet in public etc. Almost all schools use rewards and punishments too. 

With this method, the reason why children do the actions you wish to see does not matter. What matters is that they appear to emulate good behavior. 

What Peterson seems to be going for is a refinement of behaviorism, but I think that's a very low bar to aim for. Aim higher, Peterson! I think there is an even better method altogether, a method that exists outside the paradigm of manipulation. I'm talking about parenting with Nonviolent Communication (or NVC). In short, this is a method that views the parent/child relationship as a partnership rather than a perpetual fight for dominance. Kind of like any truly healthy relationship. With this method, it is understood that connection, rather than manipulation, is the best path to get our needs met in the long-term. 

Side note: I'd also refer to this approach as peaceful parenting, attachment parenting, or parenting with an unschooling philosophy.

JPB's Perspective Vs NVC

In chapter 5, JBP presents many false dichotomies of how you can treat children:

  • You can chastise them, or overlook unwanted behavior
  • You can discipline them, or neglect them
  • You can control them, or let them live a life of chaos
  • Be strict, or be permissive
  • Dominate them, or be dominated

I don't think he's aware that these are false dichotomies. It's likely that he, like most other people, just doesn't know that there are other possibilities. I think this is because he has been blinded by the language that our society uses. His religious beliefs probably also have something to do with it. After all, his convictions align well with the idea of original sin and "spare the rod, spoil the child."

JBP generally sees people through the lens of good and bad. He says everyone has the potential of being bad and extends that ability to children, saying that it is naive and dangerous to not see them this way. Well, call me naive if you want but I don't see anybody that way. Not because I think it's impossible for people to do evil things, but because I think it's counterproductive to see people through that lens. This is especially true for people with whom you want to be in a long-term relationship with. I'd say that such moralistic judgments can only impede the possibility of getting our needs met.

Marshall B. Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication wrote:

"It is my belief that all such analyses of other human beings are tragic expressions of our own needs. They are tragic because when we express our values and needs in this form, we increase defensiveness and resistance among the very people whose behaviors are of concern to us."

I would echo Rosenberg's statement because I've personally experienced it both as a child and as an adult. I think the logic of it is pretty much universal; just think of the last time you felt your whole character being judged. Think of when you were called bad, annoying, inconsiderate etc. Did it make you want to understand and accommodate the person more, or less?

Another thing is that, since children are both defenseless and reliant on you for information, they might start to believe in the negative, one-dimensional labels that you put on them, making it harder for them to grow out of the very habits you don't like. 

Instead of jumping the gun on moralistic judgments, what if you directly expressed what you felt and needed? Isn't that more likely to get results? Granted, using NVC will not always get you the result that you desire, but my point is that making moralistic judgments will never do you any better. 

Throughout this chapter and several other talks, Peterson uses many uncharitable labels on children. He has called them names like "little monsters," "rats," "devils," "brats," "blighters," and "varmint." To me, this is horrifying. He probably doesn't say those words to them directly, but there's no doubt that it shapes his attitude towards them. 

That is what Rosenberg would call "life-alienating language." It is a language which instills the idea that the other is less than human and therefore less deserving of empathy and compassion. It gives us the green light to implement behaviorism on kids as if they were no different than rats.

In the chapter, when JBP was trying to get a child to eat, he likened it to a war. When I read this, it reminded me of George Lakeloff and Mark Johnson's book, Metaphors We Live By. In it, they argued that the metaphors we use determine how we live our lives. There's a relevant passage where they talk about arguments, which I think could also apply to our interactions with children:

It is important to see that we don't just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war. Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument—attack, defense, counter-attack, etc.—reflects this. It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing.
Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently.

Imagine how much more fruitful every debate would be if we did that.

Just like the "argument is war" metaphor, I believe thinking of a child as an opponent whom you must dominate causes unnecessary friction and stagnates progress. It prevents us from discovering amazing possibilities in parenting.

Now, it is true that because of the immense power disparity of the relationship, parents can just ignore this mombo jumbo and force a child to do pretty much anything on command (unless they have a very strong-willed child, that is). Other than it being morally reprehensible to abuse such power, I want to warn people that it is likely to cause many long-term consequences. Consequences which JBP does not address. 

The Dangers of Behaviorism

Jordan Peterson was very good at showing the potential horrors of permissive parenting (something I'm not advocating for, it's just the only alternative that he offers) but he didn't present any potential horrors of behaviorism. So I think I'll do that.

Here are some of the negative consequences that can come out of behaviorism. For more detailed explanations, plus the evidence to back them up, I'd recommend Alfie Kohn's books, Punished by Rewards and Unconditional Parenting.

It neglects intrinsic motivation. Behaviorism is like a trainer lifting your arm while you hold a dumbbell and calling it exercise. Since they are being made to do things under threat of punishment or promise of reward, children are denied the opportunity to have their actions be their own. What do you think will happen when the external motivation isn't there anymore? Do you think the child will still behave? I don't think so. With behaviorism, children never truly learn discipline or to be good. (Can a person who is forced to "be good" actually be good anyway?) They simply haven't utilized their internal motivation when they do those things.

I wrote something that exemplifies this in a post called The Problem With Making Kids Say “Thank You”

It makes them reliant on behaviorism. Sometimes when you coerce a child to behave a certain way it does end up sticking, but it comes at the cost of making them dependent on external pressure. You can see this in people who promise themselves a treat if they do something good or go down a path of self-loathing if they fail.  They are conditioned to need external motivation to be good or to have discipline. 

Coercing them may make them hate the very thing you want them to do. I think this is self-explanatory. 

Depression. One of the most important requirements for happiness is a sense of autonomy. With behaviorism, children grow up to act based on pressure rather than a real sense of choice. We need the ability to choose our own actions and goals. When your behavior is being controlled by your parents and school, you are being denied the opportunity to pursue your own goals let alone ever find out what they are. If children are raised on behaviorism, their joy comes from other people's approval. And even then, it's a short-lived kind of joy.

I know Peterson doesn't think happiness is a worthwhile goal, but it's also worth noting that depression impedes people from reaching even a goal that Peterson would approve of, so he shouldn't perpetuate it if he can help it. 

It forces them to prioritize appeasing authority over learning about and conquering reality. Under behaviorism, kids have no reason to care about the behavior you want them to do, but they have all the reason care about getting the reward and avoiding the punishment. When they are made to suffer for misbehaving, they don't learn that such behavior is wrong or dangerous, rather they learn that displeasing the parent is wrong or dangerous. Therefore, they learn to conduct themselves based on the ones who hold the hammer rather than reality. Sometimes it only makes them become more sneaky so as to not get caught.

It erodes the relationship. As you can see from the previous point, it encourages children to be dishonest with the parent. This is where I believe the "rebellious teenage years" come from. When the parent is a source of what's making them suffer, they become another entity that should be avoided. This means that the parents will have less of an influence on their children's lives. Especially when they grow older and the power of rewards and punishments doesn't hold the same effect anymore. 

It teaches them to repress their emotions. In chapter 2, Jordan wonders why people care more for others than they do for themselves. I think this is at least partially the answer. Thanks to behaviorism, they are taught that their own emotions and needs are not a priority over the people who hold power. They are taught that their own emotions and needs are to be repressed if they want to live harmoniously with a parent. 

I can easily see this leading to collectivism, which ironically is what Jordan is trying to steer people away from.


I know these things can happen because I've experienced them. I was actually one of those defiant children who refused any type of manipulation. Each attempt at controlling me resulted in resistance, which then caused more drastic methods to control me, which resulted in more resistance. I eventually became numb to any type of reward and punishment coming both from my parents and schools. In the process, my relationship with my parents deteriorated and they lost any real influence they had on me. William Glasser nailed my experience when he wrote:

The vast majority of unhappiness [in the parent-child relationship] is the result of well-intentioned parents trying to make children do what they don’t want to do….  Few of us [parents] are prepared to accept that it is our attempts to control that destroys the only thing we have with our children that gives us some [influence] over them, our relationship.

Today, I have a strong drive to be polite and well liked. I'm also on my way to becoming successful by my own standards. I can assure you this didn't come from other people trying to force me to be like this. In reality, I always had a strong need for my values to be intrinsic. I remember having that need back then, though I couldn't have articulated it.

The idea that a parent might interpret the way children express their needs as "malicious" is extremely unfortunate.

I'm barely starting to trust the fact that I have in me the need and ability to become a good human being; that I don't need external control to lead a life of meaning and discipline. This trust in myself could have been instilled in me way earlier if it wasn't for behaviorism.

I know what would have worked better. I know for a fact that my parents would have gotten more of what they wanted out of me if they started from a place of trust and respect rather than fear for my future. I know it's impossible to prove a counterfactual, but after learning about myself and recollecting what was going on inside my head back then, I can say that more compassion and empathy in place of "tough love" would have set me up for a better life, not to mention a better relationship with my parents. 

Some Resources

There is so much great content out there that can enlighten us on different ways to handle situations without behaviorism. Here are just some of them to get you started.

This is a great conference talk by Roslyn Ross, where she explains why behaviorism leads to collectivism and some solutions:

I'd also recommend Roslyn's blog

Unruffled by Janet Lansbury. This is a podcast where Landsbury answers questions about specific situations. In there, you can find a peaceful solution to every situation Jordan Peterson gave an example of: how to deal with children that don't want to sleep/eat or when they hit etc.

Here's a pertinent episode: Stop Making Mealtime A Challenge. I think you'd be interested in comparing it to Jordan Peterson's forceful approach. 

Lastly, I highly recommend Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. This book gives you a better way of getting what you want without using rewards and threats, which, in my opinion, is not very effective in the first place. 

Peaceful alternatives are out there. Using rewards and punishments necessarily limits our ability to find better solutions. Even Jordan Peterson would agree that restrictions lead to creativity, so let's follow this wisdom and restrict our ability to approach kids with behaviorism. If you do this I think you'd be surprised by the possibilities. 

P.S. If you want to hear other counterpoints to Jordan's parenting approach I 'd like to direct you to this episode of The Voluntary Life. Jake Desyllas has great points that I just can't fit in this post.

About

Hello, I'm Erick Muller. I like to write about many things including philosophy, self-improvement, running, unschooling, podcasts, productivity tools and digital marketing.