The following week, while I was on vacation in Northern California, I picked up The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers in a used bookstore. Despite knowing for years that Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, this book represents one of the most explicit depictions of Rogers as a man of faith that I've ever seen. It has been an encouraging read, and I highly recommend it.
I was surprised, although perhaps I shouldn't have been, to learn that the recent comments by Prof. Chance were not the first suggestion that Mister Rogers has caused children to grow up spoiled because he told them they were "special" (although, in my defense, Chance seems to have been unaware of the incident related in the book, as well). Author Amy Hollingsworth relates an article by Don Feder which appeared in the Boston Herald in 1994, which complained that "Fred Rogers advocated a philosophy of self-esteem that makes children feel good about themselves no matter how rotten their behavior or how dull their intellects" (p. xxiv. Note that the quotation is from Hollingsworth's book, not from the original article by Feder).
Hollingsworth's reply echoed my own of a few weeks ago: "right argument, wrong target. I agree that the cult of self-esteem has gone too far. What I disagree with is that Mister Rogers is a proponent" (p. xxv). She then proceeded to explain how Rogers' own life demonstrated his value for good behavior and hard work ("with degrees in music, theology, and psychology," p. xxv).
Returning to the issue of promoting self-esteem later in her book, Hollingsworth quotes Rogers' response to critics such as Feder:
"Now self-esteem is certainly not brought about by people saying that a child has done something wonderful when that person doesn't believe it....There are many ways in which I wish I were more like Mister Rogers, although I'm sure he himself would discourage me or anyone else from trying to imitate him too closely. Mister Rogers was always an advocate for helping people be the unique individuals they truly were. Still, I often wish I had his easy-going demeanor, able to deal with all sorts of people and problems with kindness and respect. I'm hoping to get a job working with children in the not-too-distant future, and feel certain that Mister Rogers had the most important things right. Children are people, too. Not just the people of the future, but people of tremendous worth right now. I hope to be such an encouragement to any children potentially in my care as Mister Rogers was to so many through his television ministry.
"Self-esteem doesn't come from a child hearing something that's not true about him or her. If an adult does not believe that the child has done a good job with something, well, it's not the least bit helpful to say so.
"Of course if we do believe that a child has done a wonderful thing, then the best thing we can do is to tell him or her, 'Hey, that was really special. You know you did that so much better than you did the last time, and I'm really proud of you.'
"I often sing, 'I'm proud of you! I'm proud of you!' Don't you with your children?"
I nod yes; I even use his version.
"But I would hope that you wouldn't say 'I'm proud of you' if your child has done something that might be hurtful to him or her or to somebody else, because that just doesn't help. I guess we're coming right back to the very first thing [Rogers and Hollingsworth] talked about, and that's truthfulness--you, know, being ourselves and allowing somebody to share in that." (pp. 65-66)