July 6, 2007, - 12:17 pm

Dumbed Down Nation: Blame Mr. Rogers

Is Mr. Rogers (you know–cardigan-garbed Fred Rogers of PBS fame) to blame for the problems we have with the bloated self-esteem, sense of self-entitlement, and narcissism among today’s younger generations.
My friend, Jeff Zaslow, the Wall Street Journal’s Detroit bureau reporter and columnist (who was plagiarized by Katie Couric and the “CBS Evening News,” earlier this year), writes that some wise experts think so, and I agree with them:

Don Chance, a finance professor at Louisiana State University, says it dawned on him last spring. The semester was ending, and as usual, students were making a pilgrimage to his office, asking for the extra points needed to lift their grades to A’s.
“They felt so entitled,” he recalls, “and it just hit me. We can blame Mr. Rogers.”

Fred Rogers, the late TV icon, told several generations of children that they were “special” just for being whoever they were. . . . But what often got lost in his self-esteem-building patter was the idea that being special comes from working hard and having high expectations for yourself.
Now Mr. Rogers, like Dr. Spock before him, has been targeted for re-evaluation. And he’s not the only one. As educators and researchers struggle to define the new parameters of parenting, circa 2007, some are revisiting the language of child ego-boosting. What are the downsides of telling kids they’re special? Is it a mistake to have children call us by our first names? When we focus all conversations on our children’s lives, are we denying them the insights found when adults talk about adult things?
Some are calling for a recalibration of the mind-sets and catch-phrases that have taken hold in recent decades. Among the expressions now being challenged:
“You’re special.” On the Yahoo Answers Web site, a discussion thread about Mr. Rogers begins with this posting: “Mr. Rogers spent years telling little creeps that he liked them just the way they were. He should have been telling them there was a lot of room for improvement. … Nice as he was, and as good as his intentions may have been, he did a disservice.”
Signs of narcissism among college students have been rising for 25 years, according to a recent study led by a San Diego State University psychologist. Obviously, Mr. Rogers alone can’t be blamed for this. But as Prof. Chance sees it, “he’s representative of a culture of excessive doting.”
Prof. Chance teaches many Asian-born students, and says they accept whatever grade they’re given; they see B’s and C’s as an indication that they must work harder, and that their elders assessed them accurately. They didn’t grow up with Mr. Rogers or anyone else telling them they were born special.
By contrast, American students often view lower grades as a reason to “hit you up for an A because they came to class and feel they worked hard,” says Prof. Chance. He wishes more parents would offer kids this perspective: “The world owes you nothing. You have to work and compete. If you want to be special, you’ll have to prove it.”

Zaslow discusses some of the symptoms of this excessive self-esteem building and the harms they cause, including parents who allow their kids to call them by their first name and dismiss bad behavior with the universal “but they’re just children” excuse. He quotes Alvin Rosenfeld, a psychiatrist who says that kids, today, have few important discussions with their parents:

He encourages parents to talk about their passions and interests; about politics, business, world events. “Because everything is child-centered today, we’re depriving children of adults,” he says. “If they never see us as adults being adults, how will they deal with important matters when it is their world?”

Amen to that. I think this has a lot to do with why so many younger people, today, don’t understand why we must fight terrorists, and why we can’t just turn a blind eye and regurgitatate phony mantras, like “Islam is peace.”
I’m very lucky because, from a very young age, my sagacious father, (see also, ), shared his interest in politics, current events, and the news with me. On Sunday mornings–we had only one TV, then–the television was tuned not to cartoons, but to the Sunday Morning political shows. My dad would always tell me about the various people and their views. And over the Jewish Sabbath, Friday Night and Saturday, when we don’t watch TV, my father would share with me–as he does to this day–important articles from Commentary Magazine or the Wall Street Journal or the local paper (or now, usually some other source) and read and discuss them with me.
Thanks, Dad, for being there, doing this for me, and being the parent many of today’s parents just aren’t.
And also, even though my Mom suggested I watch Mr. Rogers, and I often did, I always found him creepy and silly. That whole thing with putting on his cardigan and tennis shoes was just weird to me. And I’m sure he was a nice guy, but he was way over-rated, as much of PBS a/k/a Palestinian Broadcasting System’s offerings were and are. Ditto for Sesame Street (the only good thing about that show was “the Count”). Though I did like my Mom’s other suggestion, “Captain Kangaroo.” The Captain (Bob Keeshan) and Mr. Greenjeans didn’t fill us with the “you’re special” baloney, and instead helped us learn.

Captain Kangaroo and The Count

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14 Responses

I liked Captain Kangaroo. Also Miss Frances Horowitz of “Ding Dong School”. You’re too young for Miss Frances but maybe your Dad remembers.

lexi on July 6, 2007 at 12:50 pm

I’ve been reading your site for five days now,(I found the link from another site…can’t remember which one) and, I gotta’ tell ya’; you seem to nail it right on the money. As regards Mr. Rogers and his “feel good about yourself” philosophy; as was stated in the article, the overlooked part was also to try to do/act/work/whatever to always improve yourself. As a middle school teacher in a Catholic school, I am faced daily with the problem of lazy, unmotivated, uncaring (until grade time), but otherwise bright students. Their mantra is always a variation on what was expressed in the article. AND, their parents/guardians (as well as our culture at large) are the enablers that encourage and promote this idea. My solution to all this…”what can I do to bring up my grade(s)”… is to tell them they, and they alone, are responsible for the material covered in class. In other words, pay attention to what is being discussed in class. I’m not sure I know absolutely what is the solution to this kind of thinking and attitude, but my response to it is…”I don’t GIVE grades, I merely record what you recieve on your various tests and class projects”…
Well, enough of the rant, I started out telling you how well you write and got side tracked. Keep up the “supoib” writing.

WolfDog on July 6, 2007 at 1:18 pm

Mr Roger’s is not the primary problem with producing children with a sense of self-entitlement. Rather, it was their parents, who offered self-esteem building comments and praise even when their children did nothing to deserve them The way to build self-esteem is by doing good things. I am afraid these over-indulged children will have a painful awakening in the future when they come to realize the world may not agree with their own assessment of their greatness.

rcl032 on July 6, 2007 at 1:20 pm

A most welcome post!

Jeremiah on July 6, 2007 at 2:10 pm

It’s the same mentality that cites “an African proverb”: “If you can talk you can sing, If you can walk you can dance.”

Jeremiah on July 6, 2007 at 2:20 pm

Debbie you are so far off on this topic it’s ludicrous! Is there anything or anyone you don’t find falt with? Fred Rodgers was a child Psychologist and I would follow his line of thinking over the opinions of a finance Professor. BTW, I have a background in the education system as well as Psychology.

OneIrishJew on July 6, 2007 at 2:51 pm

From the things that I’ve seen and experienced in my life I’m very well aware that life/the world is not all sweetness and light. Maybe YOU didn’t notice that I never said that it was. I also know the difference between a PhD. and an MD very well and to say that all Psychologists with Phd’s, PsyD’s, EdD’s, etc. are not “real” doctors says a great deal about what your biases are. I usually agree with much of what you say, and I’m a big fan. However, with all due respect you’re off on this one.

OneIrishJew on July 6, 2007 at 5:00 pm

I certainly don’t want to argue with anyone – especially about Mr. Rogers! I unashamedly LOVE the guy – I think he’s distinctly and proudly American – and Christian. I suspect that this attempt to reevaluate his legacy is misplaced and that his work will easily stand the test of time.
Mr. Rogers spoke directly to, and developed a relationship with – children. Revolutionary at the time and instead of creating “little narcissists” he helped those children who did not have the benefit of attentive parents. Narcissism is created by the adulation and overindulgence of parents – not by the lack of it. Most kids sitting in front of the t.v. watching Mr. Rogers receive the love – yes love- sorely lacking at home. Because his message is so simple he is attacked by pseudo and real intellectuals whose work probably won’t stand the test of time.
I feel strongly that Mr. Roger’s message of unconditional love has benefited countless numbers of people – I am definitely one of them.

CarpeDiem on July 6, 2007 at 8:24 pm

Mr. Rogers was boring to me as far back as I remember. Talk about soporific. Do I really want to see some guy who sounds like he’s halfway to being knocked out by anesthesia feed some stupid fish?
But come on, there’s more to like about Sesame Street than The Count. What about Cookie Monster? That one where he ate the moon was priceless!

LibertarianBulbasaur on July 6, 2007 at 8:26 pm

An example of of Mr. Rogers’ timeless wisdom:
“The values we care about the deepest, and the movements within society that support those values, command our love. When those things that we care about so deeply become endangered, we become enraged. And what a healthy thing that is! Without it, we would never stand up and speak out for what we believe.”
-from The World According to Mister Rogers

CarpeDiem on July 6, 2007 at 8:39 pm

While I would whole heartedly agree that we are creating narcissistic monsters of our children with excessive and phony adulation, I think targeting Mr. Rogers is off base.
I would question Prof. Chance’s background and agenda. Mr. Rogers’ message was very Christian, and I suspect this attempt at revisionist history may have an anti-Christian motive.
When Mr. Rogers told children they were “special”, he meant that they were unique not that they were wonderful. His unconditional love was meant to build self-esteem in children who had little. It is the unconditional nature of this love that is the essence of Christianity.
It is important to understand that unconditional love is NOT the same as unconditional approval. It is the latter that creates narcissists. It is the latter that the educational elites have force fed our children in schools. It is the latter that immature parents substitute too often for unconditional love.
Mr. Rogers understood and taught the need for discipline and a sense of achievement. He did not miss the point, as Prof. Chance suggests, of hard work and high expectations, as the following quotes from Fred Rogers show.
“Discipline is a teaching-learning kind of relationship as the similarity of the word disciple suggests. By helping our children learn to be self-disciplined, we are also helping them learn how to become independent of us as, sooner or later, they must. And we are helping them learn how to be loving parents to children of their own.”
“What matters isn’t how a person’s inner life finally puts together the alphabet and numbers of his outer life. What really matters is whether he uses the alphabet for the declaration of war or the description of a sunrise – his numbers for the final count at Buchenwald or the specifics of a brand-new bridge.”

WillPower on July 6, 2007 at 9:20 pm

Debbie, I found myself agreeing with what you wrote here–I guess though, that Mr. Rogers had a heart for the kid that NEVER got much/any positive re-inforcement at home–there are plenty like that–like so many in the cities who have no dads in their lives, etc. Sometimes we who are in certain positions have to try to be mensches to those we can help. Often those kids we actually teach us more than we teach them.
Yet Debbie, you are 100% correct in writing that trite little “you’re special!” comments are meaningless if they are left ABSENT the need to learn about hard work, etc. There is no self esteem in being a couch potato! (except to MSM advertisters). Consequently, DS fully understands that sometimes the thing that teaches self-esteem better than anything else is a good swift kick in the rear. Some kids are given all the syrup–but never any meat and potatoes basics (like get your butt out of bed in the morning). This can screw them up worse than the opposite. Behold how many 30 plus year-olds still live at home from the fridge of Mom and Dad.

BB on July 8, 2007 at 5:15 pm

While I agree that my generation (I am 36) is on average very soft, I don’t think it is fair to blame that on Mr. Rogers. He encouraged kids to play, think, imagine, and otherwise be active. He never taught kids to simply sit on their collective butts. He also taught kids to keep trying even after they encountered difficulty. Good stuff if there are decent parents around.
Mr. Rogers may not have helped toughen generations of kids, but he wasn’t a proximate cause of the disaster—unlike Dr. Spock who was clearly culpable in a lot a bad parenting. There is a guy deserving some serious scorn.

JSobieski on July 8, 2007 at 9:40 pm

I think Mr. Rogers was the kindhearted father figure a lot of children never had. I have a close friend who never met his dad and lived in an abusive-alcohol/drug filled home and was kicked around from house to house practically and orphan, but found comfort in Mister Roger’s show. Mister Rogers is one of the few things PBS actually had right. He is calm, kind and for many young children, having a gentle fellow who had a nice daily routine of putting a cardigan on and tying his shoes (or whatever it is that he does- I’ve only watched the show once or twice) is the closest they’re going to get to fatherly love. For the children who had great families with plenty of love, security, intellectual stimulation, etc- watching Mr. Rogers’ show probably shouldn’t have been a part of their day because for that type of child I would think watching Mr. Rogers would be boring in comparison to the myriad of activities in which they’d otherwise be engaging. And, perhaps like Debbie said, a little creepy. And Debbie of all people KNOWS that not everyone has such a wonderful father as her own. So for others who grew up without a great father, Mr. Rogers brought a little love, comfort, happiness and stability into their lives. And that’s a good thing.
Moreover- is Debbie blaming Mr. Rogers for kids/adults with attitude problems? Wait a minute I thought it was parents who are supposed to be keeping their kids in check. Blaming Mr. Rogers is worse than blaming McDonalds for childhood obesity.

Xoce on July 9, 2007 at 3:40 pm

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