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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Epic Meditations in Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life and Augustine’s Confessions, part 5: Parent as Proxy

Published Friday, September 3, 2021 By Anthony G. Cirilla

Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.

Jordan Peterson

The unjust stumble over you and are justly chastised.


All I wanted to do was buy my sister the cereal she wanted. My desire was to give her what she desired. So I let her pick out the cereal, and hold it while she sat in the shopping cart. As we moved through the store, she threw the cereal box away. I told her, “Because you did that, you won’t get to hold the cereal now.” So I put it in the cart, and she immediately began to scream. I knew that this was a power struggle—if I give her the cereal to quiet her, then I am rewarding her bad behavior and telling her that she can control me. If I do not give her the cereal, I am going to get the dirty looks of the whole store (people who probably assumed, because of our age difference, that I was the father, though I wasn’t). For what seemed like a decade (about ten seconds) I endured her screams with stoic determination, and then gave her the cereal box with this curt statement: “Do not throw the box again.” A few moments later, she threw it again, and we repeated the test of how long my determination to have greater will power than a three-year-old stood up to my ability to ignore the embarrassment of being judged by strangers. Soon, she had the box in her hands a third time, and I said, “If you throw this box one more time…” Reality dawned on me. “I am going to have to pick it up again.” An elderly woman in an adjacent aisle laughed, delighting in my pain: “I was thinking it, but I wasn’t going to say it,” she said with cruel sympathy.

That memory dramatizes the debate at the core of Peterson’s fifth chapter and the essence of his rule, Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them. He critiques, incisively and persuasively, the neo-Romantic assumption some hold today that all that is good about our children is innate and that it is society’s strictures which wait, nigh maliciously, to ruin their untrammeled virtue: “But such an attitude is dangerously and naively romantic. It’s too one-sided, in the case of parents granted a particularly difficult son or daughter. It’s also not for the best that all human corruption is uncritically laid at society’s feet…. If society is corrupt, but not the individuals within it, then where did the corruption originate?” (118) If there exists not only potential but will and desire for malice within children (and it does not take much time spent with children to observe that this is true), then the notion that society’s limitations placed upon them are all to be viewed with suspicion can readily lead to dangerous places. We may affirm that which ought not be affirmed within the child, or view askance those social resources that may most benefit our child out of a fear of foisting arbitrary social construction upon them.

The role of the parent is archetypally, mythically inextricable from the pursuit of civilized moral maturity. In the Aeneid, Aeneas realized it was the one year anniversary of his father’s death shortly after being urged by the gods to reassume his responsibilities as founder of Rome (his failure to remember this having had disastrous consequences in his illicit affair with Dido). Recollection of his father’s legacy constitutes an adult restoration of, as Peterson puts it, “expectations of civil society” (134). Aeneas says, “I believe it is the will and power/of gods that brought us to these friendly harbors,” deciding to “fulfill, as due, my yearly vows,” and after this solemn funeral rite grieving his father’s death, then host games celebrating his father’s life with contests of ship races, foot races, javelin hurling, and boxing, so that “all stand ready to seek out the victor’s prize and palm” (Aeneid V.72-95). These games test not only the participants but also Aeneas’s ability to manage conflict among them (as inevitably breaks out), demonstrating that his father’s parenting, in correcting his own flaws, created someone who could admonish another’s flaws and still be liked—and make the admonished individual, in kind, more likable.

To treat flaws within the soul as necessarily borne of the perpetual motion machine of society’s sins is to leave the soul rather helpless. For to where shall we turn other than to society for help, even if a great deal of the flaws do germinate in social construction (a not unfair supposition)? Peterson provides some good data demonstrating that, in fact, properly socialized groups of humans are indeed far less violent in proportion to the advancement of the civilization they inhabit. If this claim holds water (and it appears to me so to do), then we must ask how parents should see themselves in relation to society. Should they be fearful guardians shielding their children from the corruptions of social influence? Should they take a sink-or-swim model and throw them into the world to let it do what it wills with their children? Of course not—parents should do exactly what, when it comes down to it, we think any good educator should do: provide incremental exposure to the challenges of life and social expectations, provide filters for that which in society is bad and encouragement to adopt those social norms which are beneficial, and imitate in a domestic setting the figures one will encounter in adulthood. Parents are tasked with serving as constellations of social archetypes, including teachers, bosses, and even, Peterson essentially argues, law enforcement.

This last role is of course fraught, and Peterson takes a striking stance here: “It is an act of responsibility to discipline a child” (124). The idea that no force should be used with a child’s misbehavior (such as hitting mom, an example Peterson discusses), seems to be compassionate but actually fails to prepare the child for force that can be encountered when misbehaving in the world. Peterson recommends “minimal necessary force,” but that is not the same as no force. The idea, for example, that spanking children only teaches them to hit others is, for Peterson, untenable because it is to argue that children cannot be taught the difference between just and unjust actions. To shower a misbehaving child with affirmation is to fail to teach them that their misbehavior will not be tolerated in the world, where mercy will be less forthcoming than with even many exasperated parents: “You just rejected the responsibility of discipline, and justified it with a continual show of your niceness” (141).

Though not a father, and so perhaps somewhat underqualified in commenting on this subject, I am equally skeptical of the view Peterson critiques, that we can hug, kiss, and compliment children into good behavior. That is just as likely to produce a haughty tyrant incapable of being told no—and why that is dangerous should be obvious. On the other hand, I detect a sort of modern optimism about enforcing rules as a panacea for human nature that may be somewhat overplayed: “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” (144). Far be it from me to disagree with this claim, but can rules alone “maintain and expand the order that is all that protects us from chaos and the terrors of the underworld” (144)? From a Christian perspective, if that were true, then salvation would be in the Law. The ten commandments, from a higher authority than Jordan Peterson, would have turned the nation of Israel into an unfailingly righteous body of believers raising children not only to disallow them do anything which they as earthly parents would dislike, but also to avoid meriting the disapprobation of the Father of all.

Don’t mistake me. Proverbs 26:11 tells parents, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Paul likewise tells Christians to “bring [children] up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord,” even recommending this be done in a way that does not cause dislike in the children for the parents: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them” (Ephesians 6:4). So I am not rejecting Peterson’s premise, but arguing that it itself must be subordinate to a deeper premise: rules are not enough to be good. Something more must be needed, because children grow to be adults, and rule-keeping adults, if they cannot earn their salvation in Heaven, cannot earn on Earth the righteousness of the God who created both. The letter of parenting rules kills and the spirit gives life.

Augustine explains that he decided to leave Carthage and go to Rome because the students in the latter place were better rule followers: “The principal and almost sole reason was that I had heard how at Rome the young men went quietly about their studies and were kept in order by a stricter imposition of discipline” (Conf. V.viii). Soon after arriving there he became so ill he feared for his life, and retrospection brings a fearful realization: “I was on the way to the underworld, bearing all the evils I had committed against you… You had not yet forgiven me in Christ for any of them, nor had he by his cross delivered me from the hostile disposition towards you which I had contracted by my sins” (Conf. V.ix). The metaphorical underworld Peterson seeks to keep at bay cannot be separated from the metaphysical underworld Augustine feared entering. It was a transformation of his disposition, not a modification of behavior through implementation of rules only, that he realized was needed to escape the hellish state of his own soul, whether in life or afterlife: “I still thought that it is not we who sin, but some alien nature which sins in us. It flattered my pride to be free of blame, and when I had done something wrong, not to make myself confess to you that you might heal my soul” (Conf. V.x).

The rules of God are profitably followed for mitigating the existential underworld, but our inability to keep them is profitably observed for goading us to “throw [ourselves] upon [God] and weep on [His] breast after travelling many rough paths” (Conf. V.ii). We cannot tidy up our moral spaces and find ourselves redeemed, and that being the case we cannot do as much for our children. But when we realize that we, the unjust, “stumble over” God’s laws and thus “are justly chastised” (Conf. V.ii), we may, by God’s grace, overcome the pendulum swing between affirmation-based parenting that too easily becomes undue permissiveness and optimistic disciplinarianism which may become overbearing parental tyranny (as useful as Peterson’s advice is for implementing discipline in a way that avoids this). In the grand analysis, Christian parents are mutual recipients of the grace which saves their children. It is from a disposition rooted in this grace that Monica wept and prayed for her son: “By my mother’s tears night and day sacrifice was being offered to you from the blood of her heart, and you dealt with me in wonderful ways” (Conf. V.vii).

The overly permissive parent and the overly disciplinarian parent both root their success in what they have done right as parents (and most likely in an overreaction to what their parents did wrong). What Monica understood was the sacrificial nature of parenting – the parents who make themselves “reasonable and holy sacrifices” upon the altar of prayer will realize that Christ is the cornerstone of each child’s ideal maturation, and so make themselves only as responsible for mercy and justice as a steward can be. This doesn’t mean we don’t discipline, correct, and instruct our children, but we do so with the recognition that rules must be rooted in a soil of prayerful, tearful love, as Monica had for Augustine: “…In your deep counsel you heard the central point of her longing, though not granting her what she then asked, namely that you would make me what she continually prayed for” (Conf. V.viii). This way we can avoid making an idol of our own parenting strategies, which will result either in too much or too little confidence in the face of the awesome responsibility of rearing immortal souls who will surely suffer earthly underworlds and whom we pray will be spared from that literal place. But with our children, as with any to whom we bear witness, we plant the seeds, but God makes those seeds grow.

I think parents may profitably consider, too, the role they will continue to play in their children’s lives after they are gone. “Parents have a duty to act as proxies for the real world,” Peterson says (143). But impermanent proxies whose lessons must have value when the one who teaches them is gone. Aeneas is approached by his father’s ghost to exhort him to obey “excellent advice” of a still living friend and bear his responsibility to “take your chosen young men, your bravest hearts, to Italy” (V.958-960). Some parental ghosts are not so noble. My grandmother is left haunted by parents who didn’t value her and didn’t teach her meaningful rules, and left her confused about whether a God exists and loves her. Mind your ghost, then, not to parent in such a way that you won’t like when you’re gone. Just as Aeneas was reminded of his true home in Italy, destined so by the Roman gods, by his father, I hope that if I am blessed with children someday, that when I go to be with the Lord they will hear neither sentimentalism nor harsh rebuke but a reminder that there’s a home waiting for them in the city of God. That home, I hope, will comfort them when they fail and give them a path to live as citizens of that city already even while here on Earth. Their Father will be pleased on both counts, as will I.

Anthony G. Cirilla is an assistant professor of English at College of the Ozarks in Branson, MO, where he lives with his beloved wife, Camarie. He writes articles about theistic philosophy in medieval literature, modern fantasy, and videogames.

Read next: [Part 1][Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4]

  • Anthony G. Cirilla

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