Mister Rogers and the Trophy Culture Myth

This article was first published on PositivePychologyNews.com. https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/kim-wimmer/2018093039298

I suppose I was a pretty cynical six-year-old. Granted, my childhood had been less than ideal, to put it mildly, and largely solitary. There’s no doubt that I had to grow up too fast. I learned to entertain myself. It was the mid-seventies and I adored rock & roll. I could sing you pretty much any Heart, Queen, or Elton John playing through my am/fm radio. The Muppets were my jam. Sesame Street was tolerable. But I simply could not abide Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood. I feel more than a little shame admitting this. I think that the couple of times I tried to watch, I saw an old man singing hokey songs, constantly changing his sweater and shoes, and I was completely unimpressed by the lousy puppets. There. I said it. Now I’ll go cry in a corner.

Truth be told, I don’t think I ever watched an entire episode. It was so calm, kind, slow, and earnest (though I didn’t know that word at the time) I couldn’t relate to it at all and I quickly became bored. I may have even felt a six-year-old version of resentment for feeling condescended to. If only I had given it the benefit of the doubt and a little more viewing time. If only I had known that boring, earnest, shoe-changing, sweater-loving old man was, in fact, a radical agent of social change. If I’d listened to him, I might have learned some helpful strategies for processing pain and disappointment. I might have been able to self-soothe to dampen my terror when I regularly found myself abandoned for hours at a time as a four and five-year-old, and then overnight as an 8-year-old. I might have learned that I mattered and it was ok to treat myself with kindness, even when my stepfather degraded me in a multitude of ways. These lessons might have helped me to feel a little less broken and worthless in the difficult years to come. Side note, I am thriving now. This is not an oh-woe-is-me article. I merely felt I had to confess my initial distaste and lack of a framework for receiving Rogers’ message, in the spirit of full transparency.

Suffice it to say that I just watched “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the 2018 documentary about Rogers’ life and legacy, and two days later, my face and head still hurt from crying. Fred Rogers’ approach was revolutionary. And though it has taken me a lifetime of soul-searching, education, and trial and error to learn them for myself, the very principles he advocated are at the heart of my teaching philosophy and etched into the ongoing great lessons of my life. Rogers, in his unique, gentle way confronted life’s most challenging issues in his children’s show. He openly addressed death, race, war, self-doubt, bullying, and the importance of clear communication and vulnerability. He also demonstrated the profound power of art. He pretty much single-handedly saved PBS during the Nixon administration.

But in the last couple of decades, some educators, pundits, and op-eds in news sources from The Wall Street Journal to Fox News began to blame Rogers for the narcissistic entitlement of the everybody-gets-a-trophy culture. Unfortunately, as is so often true with these kinds of media backlashes, critics have bludgeoned the nuance out of his message and missed the point completely. One Fox News host blasted Mister Rogers for telling kids they were special and intoned, “This evil, evil man has now ruined a generation of kids.”

What somehow got lost in translation is the fact that Mister Rogers didn’t instill entitlement in children. His pronouncement that each child was special, and that he liked them just the way they are underlined the fundamental value we each have as human beings and that we each deserve to be heard and loved. He also spoke to character and taught children to respect themselves and one another. He instilled a healthy regard for emotions and offered coping strategies to bolster children’s self-regulation (e.g. “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel”) and seemed to suggest that being able to discuss our feelings not only gave us a language for expressing and labeling them, it also gave us a means to manage them. He taught us that feelings are not forever. We may be sad now but we’ll also be happy again. We get to feel all of the feelings because they are all part of life.

Mister Rogers’ neighborhood was a place where you belonged, where you mattered. You deserved to be included just for being who you are. He imparted a belief that we could and should improve our behavior, but that we were also inherently valuable and worthy of love.

In the devastation after 9/11, I am confident that I was not the only adult who found comfort and inspiration to act with altruism from Rogers’ story of his mother’s encouragement to look for the helpers–because in time of great strife, you can always find people who are helping.

Rogers’ strategies were deeply rooted in the psychology of child development. He demonstrated that when we speak to children directly from a place of warmth and love, we could create high-quality connections and engender a feeling of unconditional love and support. Rogers modeled how to hold space for a child and respectfully allow them to vulnerably share their thoughts and feelings. But this isn’t just kid’s stuff. Rogers was planting the seeds for effective communication that would shape our adult lives as well. Organizational psychologist Jane Dutton advocates those same principles in the modern workplace. Building this foundation of honoring and respect creates trust, deepens relationships, and gives others permission to grow and boldly take chances–whether your sandbox is in the playground or the boardroom.

The problem with the modern critique of Mister Rogers’ philosophy is the misguided assumption that he focused on children’s self-esteem. In truth, his approach was more akin to self-compassion. According to self-compassion researcher Kristen Neff, self-esteem is volatile and entirely contingent on external validation; specifically peer approval, perceived appearance, and success. For that reason, self-esteem deserts us when we need it most—when we fail. Conversely, self-compassion acknowledges the human condition and our place in it. When we fail, we can remember that everyone fails sometimes, and we can engage in self-kindness and mindfulness. Rather than immediately jumping into problem-solving mode, we can be with our suffering and take comfort in the fact that it is universal and integral to the process of growing. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood regularly demonstrated this concept beautifully. When Daniel Tiger admits he’s afraid he is a mistake, Lady Aberlin doesn’t discount his fear or shush him and tell him he has nothing to worry about. She doesn’t tell him to get over himself and toughen up. Instead, she sings,

“I think you are just fine as you are. I really must tell you I do like the person that you are becoming… crying or shaking or dreaming or breaking, there’s no mistaking it, you’re my best friend.”

By acknowledging that he is in the process of becoming, she allows him to be where he is in that moment, knowing he is loved. This compassionate approach is an excellent strategy for self-improvement as well. In fact, self-compassion does a much better job at instilling a grounded, stable sense of self-worth than judging ourselves positively. Empirically, self-compassion has been linked to increased willingness to try again after failure.

I truly do not understand the conflation of teaching children about their implicit value as individuals with the idea that everybody gets a trophy, regardless of effort. The former is about dignity and intrinsic worth and the latter is about rewarding for excellence, or in this case, the lack of it. Competition can be healthy. And according to psychologist, Martin Seligman, achievement is a fundamental driver for humans and plays an important role in well-being. To give everyone a trophy for showing up undermines that basic need.         I teach acting at a performing arts college where I encourage my students to develop mastery and artistry. I expect excellence from them, but not perfection. There is tremendous value in deliberate practice and deep work. And there is security in knowing that you are still worthy of love and respect when you fail. Perseverance and deep work provide a sense of satisfaction that no participation trophy could even begin to emulate. Besides, kids aren’t buying that participation trophy nonsense either. But if we don’t encourage them to stretch themselves and empower them to try again when they fail, they will constantly struggle with motivation and a lack of self-esteem. And self-esteem is volatile, remember?

Mister Rogers held us at our highest. He didn’t advocate entitlement. He didn’t offer meaningless praise. By conveying we belonged and that we are innately worthy of love and respect, he encouraged us to live up to the responsibility of acting as our highest selves; knowing that even when we failed, he loved us just the way we are. That kind of love and support doesn’t instill entitlement. It gives us wings.

In his acceptance speech for the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 Daytime Emmys, Fred Rogers humbly stepped to the podium and said,

“All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are? Those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life. I’ll watch the time.”

And during that live broadcast of a self-aggrandizing television awards show, he waited for 10 seconds while the camera cut to the teary faces of actor after actor, each taking a moment to remember. I, myself, have traveled a long, rugged road to find my way back and see you with new eyes, but dear Mister Rogers, thank you for giving me the opportunity of a few moments to offer my gratitude to you.

 

References

Baumeister, R., & Leary, M. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3),                   497-529 DOI: 10.1037//0033-2909.117.3.497

Fred Rogers Acceptance Speech – 1997. Retrieved from https://lybio.net/fred-rogers-        acceptance-speech-1997/speeches/

Lady Aberlin and Daniel Tiger Talk and Sing About Mistakes. (2017). Retrieved from                   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6XAP_VThhk

Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and identity, 2(2), 85-101.

Rogers, F. (1968). What do you do with the mad that you feel? Retrieved from             http://pbskids.org/rogers/songLyricsWhatDoYouDo.html

Tesema, M. (2018) Remember that time Fox News said Mister Rogers was ‘evil’?                          Retrieved from https://mashable.com/2018/06/18/fox-and-friends-mr-rogers-            evil/#gIfdZxXS85qK

 

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