Jordan Peterson and the lost art of parenting

23 February 2018

Tim Dieppe discusses Jordan Peterson’s new book “12 Rules for Life” and finds that Peterson has great respect for the Bible, defends original sin and proclaims a biblical approach to parenting.

Canadian Professor of Psychology and Clinical Psychologist Jordan Peterson rose to fame in spectacular fashion last month after his Channel 4 interview with Cathy Newman went viral. At the time of writing it has now had over 7 million views. If you are not yet one of the 7 million then you really should watch it as he masterfully handles Newman in an extended discussion about feminism, transgender pronouns and some other subjects.

Peterson had already attracted a level of global attention for his very strong and brave stance on gender-neutral pronouns. He said that he would refuse to use such made up pronouns and would be prepared to go to prison for this stance on free speech. Peterson’s bold and skilful critique of political correctness has resulted in him becoming something like the intellectual equivalent of a rock star, with a large and growing fan club.

Peterson was in the UK to promote his new book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos”, which topped the Sunday Times bestsellers for General hardbacks last week. Though Peterson is not (yet) a Christian, he has tremendous respect for the Bible and for Christian thinking. His book is full of biblical wisdom, and Peterson makes extensive use of the Bible itself. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Peterson’s use of the Bible is better than that of many Christians.

The need for rules

The book contains a delightful foreword by Dr Norman Doidge who explains the contemporary desire for rules to live by:

“The hunger among many young people for rules, or at least guidelines, is greater today for good reason… a generation has been raised untutored in what was once called, aptly, ‘practical wisdom,’ which guided previous generations. Millennials, often told they have received the finest education available anywhere, have actually suffered a form of serious intellectual and moral neglect.” (pxvii-xix)

Moral relativism is to blame for this, as well as the emphasis on tolerance which regards being ‘judgemental’ as the worst of sins.

Peterson’s rules came out of list he originally posted on the website Quora, which became one of the most popular answers on the site. He writes out of his own personal reflections and experience of life, and as a clinical and academic psychologist. His rules are wise, and frequently counter-cultural.

Peterson on the Bible

This quote sums up Peterson’s view of the Bible:

“The Bible is, for better or worse, the foundational document of Western civilisation (of Western values, Western morality, and Western conceptions of good and evil). It is the product of processes that remain fundamentally beyond our comprehension. … Its careful, respectful study can reveal things to us about what we believe and how we do and should act that can be discovered in almost no other manner.” (p104)

I reckon that is about as strong a statement as you can make without actually saying it is divinely inspired.

Peterson on Original Sin

The book has an extended discussion of the Garden of Eden story, drawing out many insights from its wisdom (p45ff). What struck me was his forceful defence of the Christian doctrine of original sin:

“Only man will inflict suffering for the sake of suffering. That is the best definition of evil I have been able to formulate. … And with this realization, we have well-nigh full legitimisation of the idea, very unpopular in modern intellectual circles, of Original Sin. And who would dare to say that there was no element of voluntary choice in our evolutionary, individual and theological transformation? … And who can deny that sense of existential guilt that pervades human experience?” (p55)

He continues, discussing the concept of mankind being in the image of God, and having been created in an innocent state.

“The original state of Nature, conceived in this manner, is paradisal. But we are no longer one with God and Nature, and there is no simple turning back.” (p56)

“So here’s a proposition: perhaps it is not simply the emergence of self-consciousness and the rise of our moral knowledge of Death and the Fall that besets us and makes us doubt our own worth. Perhaps it is instead our unwillingness – reflected in Adam’s shamed hiding – to walk with God, despite our fragility and propensity for evil.” (p57)

This is a remarkable statement. He wants people to consider whether the real cause of evil in the world is precisely that reflected in the Bible – humans have turned away from God.  Furthermore, he recognises that this concept of the Fall is crucial to understanding the Bible:

“The Bible is structured so that everything after the Fall – the history of Israel, the prophets, the coming of Christ – is presented as a remedy for that Fall, a way out of evil.” (p57).

Peterson grasps the wisdom of the Bible and defends a Christian understanding of original sin, at least in the sense that we are all by nature sinful beings, from his experience and knowledge as a professor of psychology. How come a non-Christian is defending this doctrine, which even many Christians tend to avoid. G.K. Chesterton quipped that the doctrine of original sin “is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” It is proven in the history of the human race – all humans (with one notable exception) have been sinful. This can only really be explained by the existence of a sinful nature.

The Ignoble Savage

The denial of original sin is bolstered by the myth of the noble savage. Peterson rebuts this idea which was popularised by Jean-Jacques Rosseau who believed in the corrupting influence of human society, whilst abandoning five of his own children to orphanages. Peterson points out that the homicide rate in the UK is about 1 per 100,000, and the evidence strongly suggests that humans have become more peaceful, rather than less, as time has progressed, and societies have become more organised. African bushmen were found to have a yearly murder rate of 40 per 100,000, which declined by more than 30% once they became subject to state authority. Some other tribes have had murder rates at well over 100 per 100,000 (p121-22). I would suggest that it is the influence of Christianity, which set the foundational moral standards for the West as Peterson acknowledges, which has been responsible for this improvement in morality.

Original sin is a fundamental doctrine of Christianity. Its denial is a rebellion against the universal experience of guilt that Peterson describes. Its denial also leads to devastating failures of parenting and education.

Peterson on Parenting

My favourite chapter of the book is the chapter on Rule 5: “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.” In our culture we all have stories of parents who are unable or unwilling to discipline their children. Peterson has some of his own:

“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.” (p113-114)

Such an appalling approach to parenting appears to be a uniquely modern phenomenon. It is based on a denial of original sin.

“Scientific literature clearly indicates … 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.” (p124)

This is basic biblical wisdom. Children are not naturally good. The opposite is the case.

“Children hit first because aggression is innate, and, second, because aggression facilitates desire. 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.” (p126)

Peterson on Punishment

What this means is that punishment of certain unacceptable behaviours is sometimes required. Peterson advocates the principle of “minimum necessary force” (p136ff). For some children, a glare will suffice, for others a verbal command, for others a flick of a finger, or time out, and sometimes a smack. Yes, Peterson advocates corporeal punishment within the principle of “minimum necessary force.” This is significant, because once again it is biblical (Proverbs 13:24), and counter-culture.

Peterson takes apart the widely quoted maxim that “hitting a child merely teaches them to hit.” Peterson responds forthrightly:

“First: No. Wrong. Too simple. For starters, ‘hitting’ is a very unsophisticated word to describe the disciplinary act of an effective parent. … Magnitude matters – and so does context, if we’re not being wilfully blind and naïve about the issue.” (p140)

As Peterson says:

“What’s the appropriate punishment for someone who will not stop poking a fork into an electrical socket?” (p139)

This child, and others who put themselves in dangerous situations, should be stopped by force immediately in order to protect their lives.

There is much more on this, and the stakes are high.

“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.” (p135)


“The penalties for misbehaviour (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 unsocialised effectively by age four who end up punished explicitly by society in their later youth and early adulthood.” (p139)

The consequences of failure to parent are devastating.

Parents should come in pairs

Peterson sets out some principles for parenting, and states:

“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. … Under such circumstances, it is necessary to have someone else around, to observe, and step in, and discuss. … I am not saying we should be mean to single mothers, … but that doesn’t mean we should pretend that all family forms are equally viable. They’re not. Period.” (p142)

Therefore, divorce is to be avoided:

“Was it really a good thing, for example, to so dramatically liberalize the divorce laws in the 1960s? It’s not clear to me that the children whose lives were destabilized by the hypothetical freedom this attempt at liberation introduced would say so. Horror and terror lurk behind the walls provided so wisely by our ancestors. We tear them down at our peril. We skate, unconsciously, on thin ice, with deep, cold waters below, where unimaginable monsters lurk.” (p119)

Stark, basic wisdom, so rarely expressed today.

The lost art of parenting

Peterson explains why modern parents fail:

“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. This is not good. A child will have many friends, but only two parents – if that – and parents are more, not less, than friends.” (p123)

“I see today’s parents as terrified by their children not least because they have been deemed the proximal agents of this hypothetical social tyranny, and simultaneously denied credit for their role as benevolent and necessary agents of discipline, order and conventionality. … This has increased parental sensitivity to the short-term emotional suffering of their children to a painful and counterproductive degree.” (p119)

Too many contemporary parents have fallen into this trap. They are raising undisciplined, immature children of the snowflake generation. We need to recover this lost art of parenting and unashamedly proclaim the biblical truths of original sin and the need for discipline to others in our churches and other contexts.

Tell the truth

It is refreshing to read Peterson’s frank wisdom, replete with references to scientific studies, and frequently biblical analysis. He is unashamed in his communication of basic truths. He is bold to speak against the culture. This week he is found urging Canadian parents to fight radical sex education:

“Keep them at home,” he suggested. “And take the consequences.”

He has already made clear his own willingness to go to prison for speaking the truth about gender:

“I’m not doing this, and that’s that. I’m not using words that other people require me to use.”

Rule 8 is “Tell the truth – or, at least don’t lie.” As I read this chapter I found myself convicted about my own level of commitment to speaking the truth.

“In the Christian tradition, Christ is identified with the Logos. The Logos is the Word of God. That word transformed chaos into order at the beginning of time. In His human form, Christ sacrificed himself voluntarily to the truth, to the good, to God. In consequence, He died and was reborn. The Word that produces order from Chaos sacrifices everything, even itself, to God. That single sentence, wise beyond comprehension, sums up Christianity.” (p223)

“It is axiomatic, within that tradition, that man and woman alike are made in the image of God. We also transform chaos into being through speech.  … Truth builds edifices that can stand a thousand years. Truth feeds and clothes the poor, and makes nations wealthy and safe.” (p230)

Christians have something to learn from Peterson’s courageous commitment to truth. Where are the Christians who are openly and boldly saying they will go to prison for speaking the truth? It may come to that. There are those who are losing their jobs already as our cases demonstrate. Jordan Peterson’s bold, and brave commitment to truth puts many Christians to shame. It is time for more of us to learn from his example and boldly and unashamedly expose the lies that contemporary culture promotes.

Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC-BY-2.0)


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