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Mister Rogers and the Trophy Culture Myth

written by Kim Wimmer September 30, 2018

Kim Wimmer, MAPP 2016 is the founder of The Invincible Artist. She is the theatre department chair and a professor of acting at the Young Americans College of the Performing Arts in Southern California. Her mission is to empower performing artists and creatives to re-ignite their passion & purpose, supercharge their resilience, and ignite their creative careers. Her articles can be found here.



No Mr. Rogers for Six-year-old Me

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.

The Muppets were my jam.

It was the mid-seventies and I adored rock & roll. I could sing you pretty much any Heart, Queen, or Elton John playing on 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, and slow that I couldn’t relate to it at all. I quickly became bored. I may have even felt a six-year old version of resentment for being 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 eight-year-old. I might have learned that I mattered and it was okay to treat myself with kindness, even when my stepfather degraded me in many 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. In the spirit of full transparency, I felt I had to confess my initial distaste and lack of a framework for receiving Rogers’ message.

You can grow things in the garden of your mind.

Fast Forward to Today

Suffice it to say that I recently watched the 2018 documentary about Rogers’ life and legacy, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Two days later, my face and head still hurt from crying. Fred Rogers’ approach was revolutionary. 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. They are the great lessons etched into 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 an 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.”

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood

PBS Collection DVD

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.

Story Hour at the Library

Story Hour at the Library

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 create high-quality connections and engender a feeling of unconditional love and support. Rogers modeled how to hold space for children, respectfully allowing them to share their vulnerable 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. Self-esteem deserts us when we fail, when we need it most.

Mr. Rogers with Daniel Tiger
USPS Art collection

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 one 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 reward for excellence, or in this case, the lack of it. Competition can be healthy. According to psychologist, Martin Seligman, achievement plays an important role in well-being. To give everyone a trophy for showing up undermines achievement as contribution to well-being.

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. There is also 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. Kids aren’t even buying that participation trophy nonsense.

Giving us wings

Giving us wings

However, if we don’t encourage them to stretch themselves, if we don’t empower them to try again when they fail, they will constantly struggle with motivation and a lack of self-esteem. 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 belong 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. We also knew 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,

Mr. Rogers Commemorative Stamp

“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.”

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.

 


 
References

Rogers, F. (1997). Fred Rogers Acceptance Speech – 1997. The Emmy Awards Lifetime Achievement Award.

Mr. Rogers Neighborhood (Posted by PBS Kids in 2017). Lady Aberlin and Daniel Tiger Talk and Sing About Mistakes.

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

Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dutton, J. & Worline, M. (2017). Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

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

Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York: HarperCollins.

Rogers, F. (1968). What do you do with the mad that you feel?. Song lyrics.

Tesema, M. (2018). Remember that time Fox News said Mister Rogers was ‘evil’?

Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Muppets courtesy of IGypsyWoman
Garden sign courtesy of mitchelhawkins
Children’s story hour courtesy of NJLA: New Jersey Library Association
Wings courtesy of Lake Worth

Mr. Rogers DVD cover from PBS store
Mr. Rogers framed picture from United States Postal Service (USPS)
Mr. Rogers Commemorative Stamp from USPS

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4 comments

Kenny Williams October 1, 2018 - 7:58 pm

Kim,

I find your explanation of Mr. Rogers’ daily message compelling and riveting. What a great tribute to those who teach others and remind each other to express self-compassion through a growth-mindset lens…

I truly enjoyed the wisdom from which you wrote and the explanation of the true meaning of what Mr. Rogers shared to all in his neighborhood.

Reply
Kim Wimmer October 4, 2018 - 6:20 pm

Thank you so much, Kenny. It’s been such a journey of discovery for me. He was a brilliant, gentle man… and so very ahead of his time.

Reply
Zoe Chance October 5, 2018 - 11:12 am

This is beautiful. YOU brought tears to my eyes. I was a too-cool-for Mr Rogers six year old too–and am now a professor espousing all these values. Reading your article brought my heart back to the right place today, and I’m going to watch the movie. Thank you for taking the time to share.

Reply
Kim Wimmer October 8, 2018 - 11:52 am

Zoe, I am so grateful for your encouragement. Isn’t it something how going into the classroom demands not only a reassessment of our values but also a call to live them on a daily basis? It was a revelation to discover that he had been walking that walk long before I’d even figured out what my talk was… let alone learning how to walk it. After waking up with the weight of the political melee of the day on my shoulders, YOUR comment put my heart back in the right place today. Thank you for that. I needed it.

Reply

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