Jordan Peterson’s Rules for Disciplining Children


In Jordan Peterson’s now famous 12 Rules for Life, there is a chapter or “rule” specifically written for parents, titled: “Do Not Let Your Children Do Anything That Makes You Dislike Them.” I’ve written a summary of it here as a way of thinking it over for myself and to create a point of dialogue. I think he has some provoking points to say with his background in clinical practice and psychological study.

The thesis of his book is that we can gain greater societal peace if individuals take on the personal responsibility to live properly. This chapter on parenting fits into this project quite nicely. Who better than parents to nurture the adults of the future into peaceful citizens? There is no other way of going about this but through discipline. Peterson writes: “It is an act of responsibility to discipline a child” and reiterates more harshly that not to discipline is “lazy, cruel, and inexcusable” (124).

Besides the societal benefits, Peterson strongly emphasizes the benefits of discipline to the parent and the child.

Here are his 5 principles of discipline:

  1. Limit the Rules.

Peterson’s entire book is about rules. And he limits them to 12. He is keenly aware that we must strike a balance between the chaos we seek to overcome and the authoritarianism that is found at the other extreme. We--none of us--wants to instill fear and terror into our children by an excessive amount of force. But Peterson emphasizes again and again that rules and discipline are necessary--and more merciful to children in the long term.

Consider the Consequences of Not Providing Restrictions

Peterson provides an anecdote of a three-year-old girl who has not learned how to share. Her parents pretend that it’s OK, but because of her behaviour she has trouble making friends. In the end, because the parents failed to teach her how to share and be polite with other children, she will experience loneliness and rejection. This will produce in her anxiety, depression, and resentment.

Positive or Negative Reinforcement?

The words “discipline” and “punish” often come off as negative principles. But they do not have to be that way. Encouragement and reward are also necessary for guiding children into being respectable adults.

Imagine you want a more communicative daughter. Peterson recommends you observe her like a “hawk” so that as soon as she does anything close to what you are looking for (mentions a small anecdote at the the dinner table) you pay attention and encourage her (130-1).

A purely positive type of behaviour management is effective but slow. As the great behavioural psychologist, B.F. Skinner also discovered, negative emotions can also stop unwanted behaviours. Negative emotions like pain and anxiety teach us to stay away from what can hurt us.

So which is better, positive or negative reinforcement? The issue is more about using discipline “consciously and thoughtfully” (135). Peterson writes that every parent should reward good behaviour and punish poor behaviour. In other words, encourage behaviour that will bring your child success outside the family and eliminate behaviour that will bring your child undue socail hardship.

A Tight Timeline
How much time do we have teach our children proper behaviour? Peterson says four years: “If a child has not been taught to behave properly by the age of four, it will be difficult for him or her to make friends. (...) Rejected children cease to develop, because they are alienated from their peers” (135).

What is an example of a limited amount of rules?

“-Do not bite, kick or hit except in self defence.

-Do not torture or bully 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” (137).

2. Use Minimum Necessary Force.

One amusing statistic is that statistically speaking, two-year-olds “are the most violent people” (126). The good news is that consistent correction of poor behaviour limits aggression in the child (126). Without consistent correction, the child will not outgrow poor behaviour. A child needs to find limitations to his or her behaviour in order to “organize and regulate” their minds. To do so on their own would require too much effort (126).

How should children be disciplined?

With the minimum necessary force. Peterson suggests determining what the minimum is through experimentation. Try first a glare. If your child continues, try a verbal command. Do not stop here, if you say “no” and your child continues the misbehaviour, and you do nothing to reinforce your words, then your word has no meaning. You can reinforce your unanswered “no” with a time out. Particularly aggressive children need to sit by themself until they have calmed down (140-1).

And if your child refuses to remain in time out? The next step up would be physical restraint. Peterson recommends holding the child firmly by the upper arms until he or she stops squirming and pays attention. If this fails, he even recommends the child be given a spanking: “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 the responsible adult.” And even if this fails? Peterson does not offer an answer, but he does advise that parents think “such things through” in order to not leave the dirty work to “someone else” (141).

3. Parents Should Come in Pairs.

Peterson is very aware of what he calls (in other contexts) the “shadow.” Inasmuch as we cannot fall into the belief that all children are angels if left to their own devices, we cannot believe that we parents are also angels all the time. Parents are prone to “insomnia, hunger, the aftermath of an argument, a hangover, a bad day at work” (to name a few!) and these circumstances can lead to poor behaviour, and worse, to real violence. In these circumstances, it is safer to have a second person present. This second person steps in to observe, discuss, and intervene (142).

4. Parents Should Understand their own Capacity to be Harsh, Vengeful, Arrogant, Resentful, Angry, and Deceitful.

As parents struggle to attempt to discipline their children, resentment inevitably builds. Some complain about a particularly strong-willed child. Who is to blame in this circumstance, the parent or the child? Peterson disagrees that children begin angelic and then are sullied by their encounter with the world. Such a thought leads to conclusions like: “all individual problems, not matter how rare, must be solved by cultural restructuring, no matter how radical” (118). This manner of thinking takes all responsibility (and free will) away from the individual. So who is to blame in difficult circumstances? Well, a little bit of nature and nurture of the parent and the child.

Parents’ poor behaviour:

Peterson writes that underlying our poor behaviour to our children is an unaddressed (conscious or unconscious) resentment or even hatred. I know I have experienced this myself. When my second son was born, I could not understand why I did not attach to him as quickly as I had my first son. I assumed it was because I was overtired and overwhelmed. I thought perhaps it was because this second son did not look as much like me as my first son. I thought it was some kind of psychological estrangement that I had to just get over.

Months later, I had a realization that my inability to attach to my baby was partly due to the memory of the very painful birth. This discovery brought a lot of healing to our relationship. Once I was able to recognize this resentment and forgive him for it, our relationship changed significantly. This is perhaps a more dramatic example of the resentment that Peterson speaks of, but it demonstrated for me that my relationship with my children—though stronger than with other people—was still susceptible to an instinctual emotional self-defense.

Beware Parent Revenge

Peterson warns that no person can tolerate being “dominated” by a poorly behaved child. This person will seek revenge. Consider the all-too-patient parent who fails to prevent a public tantrum. She gives her toddler the cold shoulder when he runs up later, excited, to show her his newest accomplishment. With enough embarrassment, disobedience, and dominance challenges, even the most “selfless” parent will become resentful (142).

Resentment breeds vengeance: lack of love, fewer opportunities for the personal development of the child, a subtle turning away (143).

Avoiding Resentment

As parents we must be aware of our level of tolerance to misbehaviour and never allow things to go so far that we feel “genuine hatred” for our child (143).

Peterson recommends that parents discuss their likes and their dislikes with regards to children. We should “not be afraid” to have likes and dislikes. Once you have agreed on what is acceptable and unacceptable, discipline them according to those standards. Or in other words, “take responsibility.” If you discipline incorrectly, apologize, learn better (144).

Parents who provide predictable and consistent rules for their children, follow up with consistent and predictable consequences. On the other hand parents who fail to set rules or to limit poor behaviour occasionally blow their tops and lash out “randomly and unpredictably.” These parents force their children to live in a sort of chaos. Consequently their children will be timid or rebellious (143).

5. Parents Have a Duty to Act as Proxies for the Real World.

Since children are not born “unsullied” by society, they need to be taught how to fit in to our families and our communities. Peterson writes, “Even dogs must be socialized if they are to become acceptable members of the pack--children are more complex than dogs. This means that they are much more likely to go completely astray if they are not trained, disciplined, and properly encouraged” (122).

When parents omit to discipline their children, their children in turn are left without guidance to function properly in the real world. As a result, these children are “chronically ignored by their peers” because “they are not fun to play with” (122). These neglected children crave adult attention and will find it in any manner they can.

The Danger of the Parent-Friend

Parents are a child’s first introduction to authority. Authority is how we maintain order in our societies. If there is no authority, no order, chaos ensues. This same pattern can happen in a household where the parent refuses to take a position of authority.

Discipline is difficult. It involves a constant reassessment of situations and people. Parents are very afraid to damage their children by being too harsh (or not harsh enough). We live in a state of constant tension. We fear that too many restrictions will damage our children’s ability to be creative individuals. But this is not a reason to give up.

Research currently shows that “strict limitations facilitate rather than inhibit creative achievement” (124). And a lack of restrictions creates an environment for children that is “too unstructured” and “terrifying” (125). Limits create security. They also stop children from dominating their parents, which consequently teaches children to obey and accept authority and ultimately, be good and peaceful citizens.  

This post is based on Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life.

Let me know what you think of Jordan Peterson’s rules of discipline in the comments below!