The Impossible Expectations Placed on Parents
Do Not Let Your Children Do Anything That Makes You Hate Them is a no-nonsense chapter title from Jordan Peterson’s recent bestseller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. And it exemplifies the sort of clear-eyed truth-telling that has earned Peterson the reputation he so richly deserves.
Peterson begins with an anecdote we all easily can recognize because we have witnessed it play out many times. A three-year-old is throwing a tantrum in a crowded public place, torturing everyone in the area, and humiliating his parents, who lack the confidence to do their job and rein in their child. On the face of it, it would seem that the child has won. But everything has consequences; the bad behavior of the child, but especially the failure of the parents to exercise their authority. Humiliation, confusion, and guilt form into resentment, and later, at an unrelated moment when the child reaches out, his parents will reflexively be cool and indifferent. A downward spiral is inevitable. Parents and child are estranged. Parenting gone bad.
Hailed by the New York Times as the most influential public intellectual of our moment, Peterson teaches psychology at the University of Toronto, and until recently also managed a clinical practice. He intermingles accessible anecdotes with subtle psychological theories, arresting insights, and an able recounting of intellectual history. Peterson dismisses the much-celebrated Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who claimed that nothing was as gentle and wonderful as man in his pre-civilized state. As Peterson ruefully notes, “at precisely the same time . . . [Rousseau] abandoned five of his children to the tender and fatal mercies of the orphanages of the time.” Ideology can justify terrible cruelty.
Peterson has no sentimental illusions about human nature or the innocence of children. “[H]uman beings are evil as well as good,” he writes, “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, become kinder, more conscientious, and more emotionally stable as they mature . . . 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.”
On creativity and the folly of unstructured indulgence, Peterson observes: “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.” With very rare exceptions, our children are not geniuses, but even if they are, they will benefit from structure and orderliness.
Much of what Peterson has to say is bracing, because it flies in the face of what have become foundational assumptions about human nature. But it is not just that. It feels like remembering something that came before. Like the rediscovery of some lost truth. And for no one is this more the case than for young men—and young fathers.
I teach with a gentle young man, perhaps likable to a fault. He is married with two young children. Let’s call him Greg. Greg spent most of the past weekend coaching and watching his two children play soccer. I know this doesn’t sound extraordinary, and that’s exactly the point. It’s commonplace for today’s parents to spend huge amounts of their time catering to their children. It’s commonplace for parents to be attentive, even solicitous of their children, calling them “buddy,” inquiring after their interests and moods in plaintive tones. Many modern parents are guided by a Rousseauian idealization, even as they keep bumping into the hard reality of their children as spoiled, unhappy tyrants.
Irving Kristol said “a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality,” and perhaps Greg and many others are mid-mugging. There can be an awakening, a sort of hyper-attentiveness in moments of crisis. But crisis can lead to extreme, reactive solutions. If we are to avoid a sort of Manichean bifurcation, where the pastel-toned suppression of masculinity gives rise to a Fight Club psychotic break, we need the sort of clarity and practicality Peterson provides in his book. And we need it specifically for young parents.
My wife and I have raised seven children. This is not a boast, it’s a confession. We have made all the mistakes. But we have come up with three general principles which should make parenting more enjoyable and more successful.
1) Good parents are first of all good as husband and wife. The most loving thing you can do for your children is to spend less time worrying about them and more time loving your spouse. If children see that their parents love each other, they feel existentially secure. You are the wellspring of their being. You are a force of nature. This is a hugely significant feature of a child’s psyche, but it is undervalued today, because of its unpleasant implications regarding divorce. (Divorce is the declaration that a marriage was a mistake. The children of divorce often experience an existential crisis because, they infer, if the marriage from which they come is a mistake, then they are in some sense a mistake.)
2) Children want to look up to their parents. Children live in a world of primal truths; of predators and prey. Children want their parents to be bona fide members of the super-species known as adults. Children feel secure when parents are confident and take the lead. Overly solicitous parents misunderstand their role. Imagine how you would feel if the pilot came into the cabin and asked if it would be OK if he lowered the landing gear?
3) Your children don’t belong to you. Love them, yes, of course, love them. But the highest form of love is not the discovery or creation of a second self. The highest form of love is to want the best for the other. And the hardest thing about love is accepting that the other is other. Our children are not extensions of us, they are different people, and from fairly early on they have their own dreams and are living their own lives. This is not a betrayal of some imaginary friendship covenant. They are not your friends. You are mom and dad. Be confident, be loving, and raise them up to be faithful, strong, hopeful, hard-working, and generous. Then you will be granted the gift which can be only found when it is not looked for—your children will love you back.
Great article! A fresh take on parenthood I haven’t read before. Thank you for making it short and and sweet.
Excellent article. I love Jordan Peterson’s many excellent videos on a wide range of topics and have always found your articles great. Many thanks