If you follow certain people on Instagram and TikTok—parenting influencers, brands trying to sell things to parents—you may have recently noticed your feed overtaken by adorable videos of babies and toddlers, set to a little lecture on the importance of the early years, in the voice of a man who sounds a little bit like Kermit the Frog. For the uninitiated:
You have little kids for four years. And if you miss it, it’s done. That’s it. So, you gotta know that. It’s, you know, lots of things in life, you don’t get to do more than once. Now, obviously you can have more than one child, but all I’m saying is, that period between 0 and 4, 0 and 5, there’s something about it that’s really, it’s like a peak experience in life. It isn’t much of your life. You might think of it as a long time. But it’s not that long. Four years goes by so fast, you can’t believe it. And if you miss it, it’s gone. So you miss it at your peril, and you don’t get it back.
Many influencers, to judge by their videos, seem to see in this clip an unobjectionable bit of sentiment—a cliché, stated in a slightly novel way, about savoring the moment. Others are posting about being turned to anxious dust by the pressure it imposes (peak experience? With little kids? In a pandemic?).
My verdict: Put the clip in a museum, as it’s a classic artifact of online parenting discourse in America in 2022—a thin skin of sentimentality and nostalgia, covering a thick, burbling layer of exhaustion and resentment, all floating over a vast sea of hidden assumptions. Let me explain.
Like so much short-form flotsam, the audio clip proliferates without an obvious credit, or source. This one isn’t from a movie or a song, as are many viral sounds on TikTok; the Muppet voice isn’t an actor or a comedian (per se). But I recognized the narration right away. The speaker is Canadian psychologist, intellectual dark web superstar, and former eater of lots of meat Jordan Peterson. The origin of the clip is a Nov. 1, 2017, episode of The Rubin Report—a YouTube talk show—recorded at the beginning of Peterson’s fame arc, a few months before he released the book 12 Rules for Life, which went on to sell millions of copies. Connecting the ideas in that clip to Peterson’s larger canon gives them a firmly unsettling edge.
On The Rubin Report, a female viewer with kids who identifies herself as being 33 and living in “expensive Southern California” asks Peterson, “What is your advice on how to balance having a parent at home with our children, versus pursuing dual incomes?” Peterson stresses the message that no matter how many sacrifices you have to make, you should put time with your kids first, because your kids are only little once. This is the reason the clip seems to have triggered a meltdown among some on Instagram, even if they didn’t make the connection to Peterson’s other work. (A response video from the account @feedinglittles urges 1.5 million followers not to let the audio trigger too much anxiety: “You can’t be 100 percent there. … It’s hard when you’re in it.”) To be completely fair, I must mention that after this clip ends, Peterson tempers his message with a plea for the question asker not to feel guilty—but that part is not what’s in your Reels.
This somewhat mild back-and-forth takes on new meaning when you look at other parenting advice Peterson was promoting around the time the audio in the clip was created. Peterson’s chapter on child-rearing in 12 Rules for Life includes some rather upsetting ideas about kids, and lining it up against the sentiments expressed in the TikToks and Reels is an odd exercise. The chapter is called “Don’t Let Your Children Do Anything That Would Make You Dislike Them”—one of his titular “rules.” That’s fine, in some ways. Other schools of parenting thought, like RIE, also stress the idea that parents should consider their own needs, and set certain expectations for their children in order for those needs to be met. But the advice is, as with a lot of Peterson’s work, about discipline, hierarchy, and power. He calls for parents to actively shape a child so they are prepared to join the social world; to do otherwise as a parent is “avoiding the responsibility” out of fear of conflict. He writes, “You can discipline your children, or you can turn that responsibility over to the harsh, uncaring judgmental world—and the motivation for the latter decision should never be confused with love.”
So far, fine enough. But what is the discipline he advocates? He definitely, definitely believes in physical punishment, which to him is just common sense. He argues that children can—and should—be trained, much like dogs. He tells stories about his and his wife’s own impeccable parenting: He force-fed his son, who wasn’t eating very much, by poking him on the chest until he opened his mouth, then pushing the spoon inside! He got a friend’s kid to lie down and go to sleep by using a stern tone and refusing to just give up! He fantasizes about taking one kid who is bothering his daughter at a playground and yeeting him 30 feet off the monkey bars! (He doesn’t do that last thing, in real life.) He definitely does not believe in the Rousseauian idea, common in peaceful and gentle parenting circles, that children have an inherent goodness to them and should be trusted to want to behave if the circumstances are right. “Lord of the Flies is a classic for a reason,” he writes.
Here is what Peterson has to say in the book about those “peak experience” four years you cannot get back: “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.” He advances this very forbidding and stressful idea as part of an argument about how important it is to make your child likable. “This matters, because peers are the primary source of socialization after the age of four. Rejected children cease to develop, because they are alienated from their peers. They fall further and further behind, as the other children continue to progress.”
The stakes of what happens in these first few years are high, Peterson thinks. Parents who “miss” the four-year window are not merely doing so at their own peril, as the clip would have it. They have truly done their kids an injustice: “Children are damaged when those charged with their care, afraid of any conflict or upset, no longer dare to correct them, and leave them without guidance. … I can recognize such children on the street. They are doughy and unfocused and vague. They are leaden and dull instead of golden and bright. They are uncarved blocks, trapped in a perpetual state of waiting-to-be.” Talk about guilt! I don’t want to make a dough baby!
A top-level summary of the Peterson argument is that there are two types of parents: the bad and mushy ones, who allow kids to do everything, and the Peterson-type ones, who distrust their children and override their little-kid instincts by force-feeding and flicking them smartly on their hands with a “thumb-cocked” finger, all for their own good. (Is it a coincidence Peterson also thinks that chaos is feminine energy, while order is masculine?) If you believe this about social development in early childhood, you might certainly also believe that women who work outside the home (or remotely in another room) are to blame for their children’s failures. If you can’t be there to poke and flick, when it counts—that is your bad.
The Jordan Peterson clip was so wildly shared because it tapped into an ever-present well of maternal nostalgia (and also a certain valid sense that caregivers of the youngest children don’t get enough credit for what they do). But this plea to live in the moment, which has such appeal to American culture, has a dark side. Parents are already trying to perform daily miracles, “being there” as much as possible for their kids, while the rest of the world clamors for their presence. The idea that they need to be told—again—to be present, is absurd. The clip also ignores two bigger truths about parenthood: Your kid is still your kid past age 5. And everyone, truly, is doing their best.