Monday, August 06, 2007

Blaming Mister Rogers?

I was introduced to this article via another blog (but he did something rather different with the issues raised), and knew that I would have to make some kind of response, but also knew that to do so would be fairly difficult.

Disclaimers first: Mister Rogers has been a long-time hero of mine, and I have to be honest in admitting that I may not be able to be completely objective in responding to attacks on his life's work (of course, I also don't believe that total objectivity is humanly possible in the first place, but at least I'm admitting a known bias).

Now, unless you've already clicked that first link, you're no doubt wondering what's happened to cause such a quandry. After all, Mister Rogers' has been accused (falsely) of things before, but this is a bit different. Here's the gist of the article:
Fred Rogers, the late TV icon, told several generations of children that they were "special" just for being whoever they were. He meant well, and he was a sterling role model in many ways. 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.
I certainly don't want to say that I disagree with everything Prof. Chance is saying. The presenting issue: that of students asking to get a higher grade (with no apparent evidence that they've done anything to deserve such a grade), is one I have tremendous sympathy for. I've said often to my family and friends that I would be a very unpopular assignment-grader, since I have little sympathy for students who turn in work late or otherwise try to "get away with" anything in order to get a higher grade than they truly deserve. Similarly, I often complain about the sense of "entitlement" that many in our world seem to have.

But to blame Mister Rogers for this situation strikes me as unhelpful in the extreme. Because one very popular children's show host encouraged children to feel good about themselves, and placed self-esteem at a high level, we're supposed to believe that children grew up with an inflated sense of self-worth leading them to feel entitled to things they do not, in fact, deserve? And I definitely wonder at the argument the article makes against having children call adults by their first names. Although Mister Rogers is not directly implicated in this (and, in fact, how many kids do you know who call him "Fred"?), the context of the article would seem to put the blame for this practice on his shoulders, too. I would almost write this article off as some poorly executed satire if it weren't for the response Fox News has given to it.

Certainly parents should encourage children to find value in hard work and excellence. And, certainly, children should be taught that they won't always get what they want, or even what they think they deserve. With due deference to the "certain unalienable rights" that the Declaration of Independence argues that all humans are "endowed by their Creator" with, there really isn't much that people should argue that have any right to if they haven't earned it.

But one of those rights that people should have is the right to feel good about themselves, just for being the unique person that they are, whoever that is. As Christians, we believe that God created each person, and finds value in every one of us. Although Mister Rogers was a largely secular figure, he was also an ordained Presbyterian minister, and no doubt was influenced by such a belief. Not only can't I find any place to fault Mister Rogers for trying to instill children with a healthy self-esteem, but I think he should be praised for it! For all the value of encouraging people to work hard, and to triumph over adversity, there are many, many people out there who will never achieve the greatness that they're capable of, simply because they've been taught that they're not worth the effort. If such people could be taught to find value in themselves, and then taught to work hard to achieve great things, imagine what could happen! But to argue that we should teach kids that they aren't of any value unless they've done something to earn it is a recipe for disaster.

So, I say, hats off to Mister Rogers! Thanks for helping us to know that we are people of worth! May our achievements be a tribute to the value you saw in us!

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