07/08/2013 03:13 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

Mr. Rogers, Evil? Really?


Perhaps you've seen the video recently posted on this site of a discussion on Fox News about Mr. Rogers. In the conversation, Rogers is described as an "evil" man who "ruined a generation of children" because his message to young children - that they are special just for being who they are -- leads to narcissism and attitudes of entitlement. If kids believe they are special, a commentator asks, why should they work hard and try to do better?

Needless to say, this is silly. Young children should feel they are special, and they should be treated with the kindness and genuine interest that Rogers exemplified. On this foundation, we will then be able to teach them values -- the importance of effort, responsibility and concern for others. And they will want to learn what we have to teach.

The criticism of Rogers is an extreme example of a common, more serious critique of modern American parenting. Many thoughtful clinicians and scholars believe that we have become too concerned with our children's feelings and not concerned enough with their competence and moral behavior.

I share the critics' concern about the pervasive narcissism in contemporary culture. It is also not difficult, in our everyday lives, to find appalling examples of parental indulgence. But the claim that permissive parenting is a cause of the current epidemic of narcissism is questionable, at best. (Psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell make this claim in their 2009 book, The Narcissism Epidemic. The authors cite very few studies, however, to support this theory and these few have inconclusive results.)

In her important book, Raising America, a history of expert advice offered to parents over the course of the 20th century, Ann Hulbert finds in every generation two competing traditions of child rearing. Advocates of a parent-centered philosophy believe, especially, in the importance of a child's obedience to adult authority. In this view, good relationships (and good feelings) follow from good behavior. Advocates of a child-centered philosophy believe otherwise -- that good behavior follows from good feelings.

In real life, as Hulbert demonstrates, these are false choices. Feelings matter. Behavior also matters. Classic parenting research by Diana Baumrind established decades ago that children who are responsible and socially mature are more likely to have parents who are both responsive to their children's feelings and also expect good behavior.

As parents, there will always be some tension between our empathic concerns (our desire to comfort our children, to protect them from disappointment, to help them feel better now) and our socializing concerns (our desire, for example, to help them work harder, respect others and learn the skills they will need to do well in life). Most parents struggle to find the right balance between these competing concerns.

Our children are special, and our love for them is unconditional. Over time, we help them learn that success (and happiness) is earned -- by sustaining good relationships and hard work. Fred Rogers would undoubtedly agree.