• Kamya Vishwanath

Understanding Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life

In the first of the 3-part series (read here), we had introduced you to the genius of Professor Jordan Peterson. Part 1 dealt with the first four rules from his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote To Chaos – a part that was easy to resonate with. The second part of rules 5 to 8 has proven to be difficult to decipher – not only because of the sheer length of the topic, but also because the complexity of the ideas brought on by the author. The upcoming rules tell us how to get to the root of our individual suffering – a matter that faces resistance from many - making it tougher for us to internalize what Peterson aims to put on the map.

Rule 5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them

A General Idea

While on tour, Dr. Peterson feared that he would face immense backlash for this singular chapter. Suggesting that one could dislike their own children? He knew that the audience would not hesitate in calling his views outwardly and politically incorrect.

He clarifies that this did not mean hating one’s children, but rather acting in ways that would only stifle them even further. How does one do that? By reinforcing bad behavior almost all the time, and over-compensating children for the few good ones that appear every now and then.

Parents have become apprehensive about punishing their children when they do something wrong. Peterson attributes this tendency to the looming shadow of the 1960s - “a decade whose excesses led to a general denigration of adulthood.” The waves of uninhibited freethinking then made it difficult to distinguish between “the chaos of immaturity” and “responsible freedom”; up against the already existing “regular mum” who had an overreaction to everything, came the term “cool mum” who allowed for matters to be simply pass by. What they failed to realise is that all of these decisions that took contributed towards the ultimate socialisation of the child; they ser precedents without even realising it. Peterson makes a rather pointed claim:

“Such women (mothers) will object vociferously to any command uttered by an adult male, but will trot off in seconds to make their progeny a peanut-butter sandwich if he demands it while immersed self-importantly in a video game.”

The Root of Evil

From where does a child’s bad behaviour arise? Most of the self-proclaimed freethinking members of society would have you believe that the evil in children is a result of the ills of the social structure around them. While he talks about the consequences of bad parenting in making a child more complacent, Dr. Peterson argues that we have it backwards if we make the argument that the social structure is at fault. From studies on apes and hunter-gatherer societies to the horrors that we have witnessed in the 20th century, man’s proclivity for evil is no joke. Furthermore, children are not inherently innocent; they engage in constantly testing their parents’ patience to see the limits of these actions. They must be corrected when they act out of line. Children, as is often said, are like clay; they are waiting to be moulded and shaped. If you leave them to be as is long enough, they will simply harden, making it incredibly difficult to make changes without breaking them.

“They are uncarved blocks, trapped in a perpetual state of waiting-to-be”.

Parental Duty Dr. Peterson says that parents are the “arbiters of society”. It is their duty, therefore, to discipline their child, and not perceive their action as one borne out of revenge. Parents have a duty to be hard on their child when things go wrong. Studies suggest that they do as much harm through omission as one would through commission, such as abuse. They must be willing to tolerate the momentary anger and hatred to do what they know would be best for their child. A copious amount of scientific research is available to say that constraints and rules do not inhibit a child’s creative achievement, but rather facilitate it. Attempting to find these constraints as a pursuit in itself might perplex and dishearten them on finding that they’ve done the wrong thing. But there is security in knowing something new…something beyond what they had already known. (more on this in Rule 8)

Dr. Peterson argues that contrary to popular belief, it is violence that is second nature to man and not peace; the latter is what must be taught. With that sort of template before us, it would be remiss of responsible adults to watch children go uneducated on the topic of harmony.

Discipline and Punish

This sub part has little to do with Foucauldian ideas, but goes a step further. Instead of questioning punishment in general, Dr. Peterson suggests that there is no doubt that children need to be disciplined; it is more an issue of how to consciously and deliberately punish the child for doing something wrong. Politically correct millennials, who focus their attention on unconstrained freedom, argue against “adultism” or the authority that adults have over younger people. The reason for this, Dr. Peterson argues, is twofold:

  1. Children are dependent on the adults for their care and it is therefore the duty of parents to steer their children as far away from misery and failure as possible.

  2. Having rules is the “minimum contract” expected of members of a non-totalitarian society.

There is merit in saying “no” only because there is an additional backing of threat behind it. Words will not be powerful on their own. A mere blanket rule that “there’s no excuse for physical punishment” is also wrong, because there are some actions such as theft, abuse, etc. that are objectively wrong and must be stopped immediately. Dr. Peterson concludes the chapter with five principles for us to ponder over:

  1. Limit the rules – more rules aren’t better, but the few that are there must be compelling enough,

  2. Use of minimum necessary force to enforce those rules,

  3. Parents come in pairs; this, he argues, is so that someone else present to cut any tension between a single person and the child,

  4. Parents must understand their own capacity for evil, and so not take out latent frustration on their child,

  5. Parents are proxies for the real world, and so they must prepare their children adequately.

Rule 6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world


Human contempt for mankind is no strange phenomenon; we have seen this manifest in the various atrocities the world has witnessed. When people suffer, they tend to question existence altogether. In this chapter, Dr. Jordan Peterson gets to the root of this very idea.

“Setting your house in perfect order”

This is Dr. Peterson’s way of saying that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Nihilistic tendencies are but natural for embittered souls who have gained nothing from their experiences in this world.

A Different Take

However, Dr. Peterson says that it is still possible to learn good even after experiencing evil. Not all those who have been seen evil as children go on to do evil. Numerous victims have in fact turned their lives around to give their children a life extremely different from the ones they had to suffer. A strong example that he uses, and has referred to at various points in this book, is the war survivor and author Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s life. Solzhenitsyn had suffered the horrors of Nazi Germany while serving communist Russia, only to then be faced with cancer after the war had ended. Instead of living the rest of his life cursing his fate, he broke himself apart bit-by-bit to try and understand where things went wrong. He understood that he had partaken in numerous places activities that he didn’t want to go through with. He had not been true to himself, and that had cost him his peace of mind.

Take Control

“Failure to prepare when there is a necessity to prepare is a sin”

When we succeed, we get complacent. The moment something goes amiss, instead of scrutinizing our own actions, we tend to criticize our environment and circumstances. He tells us to clean up our lives and to “make use of the circumstances given to us”. Where do we start? By putting a stop to doing what you know to be wrong.

Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)

From dust you are and to dust you will return (Genesis 3:19). It has been established that life is full of suffering. Does that imply that it’s not worth living or does that mean that one is therefore free to do as one pleases? Would the principle of “YOLO” define action over thoughtful, planned action?

Meaning and Expediency defined

Expediency is when one follows “blind impulses”. It’s what seems to be the right thing at that moment, but doesn’t quite fit the picture in the long run. If you pursue your short-term pleasures, you’re sacrificing your future. Meaning, on the other hand, “emerges when impulses are regulated, organized and unified”. It pushes one to reach ahead despite the tragedy and suffering that life has and is.

The Price Paid

Times are such that we are at odds with patience. A simple indication of this can be seen in our annoyance with the buffering of a video. We have gravitated to instant-made everything. People have taken to drowning their sorrows in a whiskey-neat or smoking the pain away rather than dealing with it like the fully equipped humans beings that they were designed to be. With this mentality, Dr. Peterson argues, it could very-well lead to a dark place with no return.

To make his point loud and clear, he begins by tracing the evolution of the path that human consciousness has taken. From being animals that hunted, gathered, and devoured, there was a new fourth category: humans began to save. This began to shape much of the way in which people think today: sacrifice the present for a better future.

The Importance of Work

Work is sacrifice, he says. The idea that one must delay gratification in this manner is as old as the discovery of time itself. It is truly empowering to realize that reality can be bargained with in this manner. He takes us through various texts and circumstances wherein there may be a sense of urgency to do something that might not necessarily be the right thing. Being at the right place at the right time is the essence of this chapter. One then feels as if he or she has been transported to new heights of satisfaction with the work they’re doing. That is meaning.

“Meaning isn’t an idea; it’s a place.”

There is no guarantee that your sacrifices will bring you what you think you deserve, but that’s the risk one must be willing to take. What if the sacrifices do not yield any results? Dr. Peterson says that in such cases, drawing from rule 6, one must first look at their own actions and re-examine their own values. The same idea is something that is talked about the Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F**k: A Counterintuitive Approach To Living a Good Life. When someone changes his or her ideas of what constitutes success, that’s powerful. They then cease to utter falsehoods and hold themselves to false standards. That again is finding meaning. It may not always be that a person knows what’s right. Instead, he or she begins to notice what they didn’t do wrong. The moment they take note of that and hone it, that’s when something just begins to make sense.

Once again, Dr. Peterson says that the only way to be able to make changes is for people to discover their true nature and advise themselves accordingly. They cannot will themselves to be different by imposing rules on themselves.

Rule 8: Tell the truth — or, act least, don’t lie

“If you will not reveal yourself to others, you cannot reveal yourself to yourself.”

Dr. Peterson’s eighth rule is an incredibly important one. What people don’t realize when they’re lying is that they’re diluting their own characters. While it might be expedient to lie and gain short-term benefits, in the long run lies weave you into a web that stretches all the way into the past.

“Taking the easy way out or telling the truth –those are not merely two different choices. They are different pathways through life. They are utterly different ways of existing.”

It is easy to manipulate the truth to get what you want, but that ensures that you live in what Alfred Adler defines as “life-lies”. A life lived like this assumes two dangerous premises:

  1. One’s current knowledge is sufficient to define what is good.

  2. Life left to its own devices would be unbearable and dangerous.

The first premise is particularly dangerous because our understanding of right and wrong evolves over time, and a myopic view – which is what we take while lying – can obfuscate the future costs of our lie.

The truth can be horrific, but that doesn’t mean we turn a blind eye to it. It is our duty as members of the society to be aware of it and perpetuate it, so that we can move to the future with the past completely behind us. As Nietzsche once said, “a man’s worth is determined by how much truth he can tolerate”. When we fail to be truthful and take the easy way out, we are setting ourselves up for failure – something we later complain about. Be honest with yourself so that you can push yourself further.

“You should never sacrifice what you could be, for what you are.”

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About the Author

Kamya Vishwanath is a law student at the Jindal Global Law School. She is extremely passionate about her political opinions and reads extensively about the subject. A strong advocate of mental health and combating stigma around the same, she has interned with the Spastics Society of Karnataka and the Center for Law and Policy Research and continues to write passionately about mental illness. A strong believer in the philosophy of individualism, Kamya aims to leave behind a lasting legacy in every task she undertakes.

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