Rants & Raves
Mr. Rogers and the Entitlement Generation
OK, you may know some of this story. On July 5, 2007, The Wall Street Journal quoted me as saying that Mr. Rogers was the reason the current generation of young people is spoiled. Mr. Rogers, as you will remember, told every child that he or she was “special.” I was quoted as saying that each child then grew up to believe that he or she is indeed special, leading to a nation of spoiled young adults. The ensuing hoopla caused a national furor and a raging debate over whether the current generation is indeed spoiled and whether the man in the red sweater had anything to do with it. At the time, I tried to stay out of the debate. It was, after all, an off-hand metaphorical comment, for which I paid a heavy price in the vitriol I received from fans of Mr. Rogers, many of whom clearly did not get his message about how to treat people. They demonstrated to me and others that even though they were deeply troubled that someone would criticize Mr. Rogers, however metaphorically, they behaved in a manner of which he would not have approved. Every so often the story resurfaces and I get more vicious emails. I have finally decided to tell my complete side of the story and to fill in a little more. Please read all of this carefully before you fire off a response.
First, a little perspective. I have been teaching college students in finance and business full-time since 1980. At some time in the early 21st century, I began to make anecdotal observations that a surprising number of my students seemed spoiled in relation to their predecessors. This was not a formal study, as reported by Steve Doocy of FoxNews and erroneously reiterated by many others. I do not consider myself an expert on the psychology of young people, though I was reminded by a close relative that I really was something of an expert. You cannot spend more than two decades teaching young people without accumulating some expertise of this sort. But whether I am an expert or not, here is the story.
On May 3, 2007 Wall Street Journal writer Jeff Zaslow wrote an article called “In Praise of Less Praise,” which raised the question of whether we give out too much praise to children these days. I emailed him and I mentioned that maybe we should blame Mr. Rogers for telling kids how special they were and how those kids grew up unable to take criticism. A few days later he replied and thanked me, noting that he’d like to follow up on the Mr. Rogers idea.
[Let me take a brief moment and say that the opportunity to talk several times with Jeff Zaslow was well worth the ensuing aggravation of the Mr. Rogers affair that I am about to tell you about. Jeff was a relatively unknown writer at the time but only a year later became famous for his best seller The Last Lecture, the story of a terminally ill college professor. After that he wrote Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, the story of U. S. Airlines Captain Sully Sullenberger, who saved his plane when it dove into the Hudson River, and he also penned Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope, which was about Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her recovery from a near-fatal shooting. Unfortunately, Jeff was tragically killed in an automobile accident in Michigan in the winter of 2012. Of course, all of this has nothing to do with my connection with Jeff, but I cannot tell my story without praising him for his excellent work in the last few years of his life and telling you how sad I was to hear of his death.]
In July of 2007 he followed up, contacting me about his plan to do another article that would address the point of whether young people were spoiled because we brought them up telling them they were special. This article appeared on July 5, 2007 at the bottom of p. B5 of the Personal Section, complete with a color picture of Rogers in his famous red sweater. The title was “Blame It on Mr. Rogers: Why Young Adults Feel So Entitled.” It was, to say the least, attention-grabbing.
Here is the exact text that involved me, which started with the first sentence of the article.
Don Chance, a finance professor at Louisiana State University, says it dawned on him last spring. The semester was ending, and as usual, students were making a pilgrimage to his office, asking for the extra points needed to life their grades to A’s.
“They felt entitled,” he recalls, “and it just hit me. We can blame Mr. Rogers.”
He goes on to say
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.
Later he writes,
But as Prof. Chance sees it, “he’s (Rogers’) representative of a culture of excessive doting.” Prof. Chance teaches many Asian-born students and says they accept whatever grade they’re given; they see B’s and C’s as an indication that they must work harder, and that their elders assessed them accurately. They didn’t grow up with Mr. Rogers or anyone else telling them they were born special.
By contrast, American students often view lower grades as a reason to “hit you up for an A because they came to class and feel they worked hard,” says Prof. Chance. He wishes more parents would offer kids this perspective: “The world owes you nothing. You have to work and compete. If you want to be special, you’ll have to prove it.”
This article turned out to be the Wall Street Journal’s most downloaded article of the week, a point further highlighted in the Journal’s Saturday issue, which also included a color photo of Rogers. The intent was to continue to pump up the article so more and not let the story die.
Well, things then exploded. I began receiving three types of emails and phone calls. The first was from other media outlets wanting interviews, all of which I declined. Even the opportunity to be on FoxNews’ morning show “Fox & Friends” was not something I wanted. The second type of email was from those who agreed with my comments, nothing of which really had anything to do with Mr. Rogers. These people saw that he was clearly just a metaphor for the incessant coddling and trophy-giving we have done to these kids as they went from toddler to adult. The supporters of my statement almost never mentioned Rogers. They knew what I was talking about. By the way, I would like to emphasize that these emails came from a tremendous number of teachers. They knew exactly what I was talking about and that it had nothing to do with a PBS television show.
It was the third set of letters that really got me, though I suppose I should not have been surprised. The metaphor sailed over the heads of a lot of people, possibly even the majority. They came at me with varying degrees of respect. Some were extremely bitter and some were just bewildered. The bitter ones attacked me for attacking a dead person or attacking someone who had been so nice and had done so much good. The bewildered ones could not understand why I had to “pick on him.”
Well, I wasn’t picking on him. Public figures know that they will often be mentioned and not always in the most favorable light. By putting themselves in the public eye, they are fair game. And I do not believe that just because a person is dead they cannot be mentioned in a negative light. Of course, none of this really mattered. Rogers was just a metaphor, but I’ll admit it was perhaps way too deep for people to catch.
I responded to each email and some of the negative ones softened up, realizing that I had a point that had nothing to do with Rogers. They certainly wished I had made the point another way, but I am pretty sure had I not mentioned Rogers to that reporter, it never would have gotten in print. I even got into a communication with the head of the company that made Mr. Rogers’ train. He was a personal friend of Mr. Rogers. His note was written in a respectful manner, and we had an excellent exchange of comments. I think he ultimately did get my point but wished it hadn’t come at the expense of his late friend.
I am pretty sure the end result was a resurgence of interest in Mr. Rogers. He had been dead four years, and I cannot recall any other mention of his name since his death. In Hollywood, they say “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” I’m convinced that getting his name out there ultimately did his legacy a great deal of good.
I did respond to reporters in those few days afterwards. I did no formal interviews but answered a few questions. It was also quite interesting that Fox News originally reported my story as being a “professor at Louisiana State University did this study that showed that Mr. Rogers had damaged generations of children.” I can certainly see that this would have been a headline-grabbing story, but of course, no such study was ever done. I sent an explanatory note that was read on Fox & Friends. Here is the text:
I made a casual observation that we have a society full of people who think they’re entitled to things they haven’t earned. The reference to Rogers was just a metaphor. As the article says, he is representative of a culture of excessive doting but he is not the problem itself. That said, it was just an observation. I have no professional qualifications to evaluate the real problems or propose solutions. Mr. Rogers was a great American. I watched him with my children and wouldn’t hesitate to do so again if I had young children. I would just want to makes sure that they know that people become special by the choices they make, not by who they are and that the world owes you nothing.
Then in the manner of a raging forest fire, the internet grapevine reported that I had apologized and backed off. There was truly nothing to apologize for and I certainly did not back off. I think the above statement is clear. I just explained my position.
Zaslow did a follow-up story two weeks later, fortunately not mentioning me, to provide some clarification of his position. He stated that he had received about 1,000 comments from readers. In a private conversation he confirmed to me that it was interesting that when a comment came from a teacher, there was nearly universal agreement with the article. The teachers did not obsess over the Rogers reference. They knew what the real problem was. In that article, Zaslow said
Many readers appreciated the arguments, but others felt the column was unfair to target Mr. Rogers, who was such a positive influence. I hadn’t expected that column to be taken so literally, and I should have articulated the fact that Mr. Rogers also encouraged hard work and mutual respect. It’s not his fault if others now misinterpret the “special” language he popularized.”
He also went to point out many other reasons why young people feel entitled.
In addition, I would like to point out that I’m not the only one to allegedly make the allegorical connection between entitlement and Mr. Rogers. On December 12, 2008 Fox Business reporter Elizabeth MacDonald “blamed” the Wall Street bailouts on Mr. Rogers:
Better yet, blame the bailouts on everyone who forgot the most important part of the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood show, a willful ignorance that has led to a mass dereliction of civic duty, of civic vision--Rogers' emphasis on "neighborhood."
So again blame the bailout on how generations were raised, on an overweening sense of narcissistic entitlement.
Yes, Mr. Rogers helped those of us, too many of us, who had to endure obnoxious abusive parents to get through the day. I get that.
But again, I'm talking about the culture of entitlement that's behind bailout fever.
Miss Louise of Romper Room never encouraged this behavior--remember the Bumble Bee telling children to behave: "Do Bee a Don't Bee Doer"?
E-Mac was unaware of the Wall Street Journal story, because she inserted the following into her web article after it was published.
(Readers have pointed out that the Wall Street Journal took a similar crack at Mister Rogers in a prior column years ago, thank you for pointing that out dear Readers, I have since read the piece, it’s hilarious).
[Some have misunderstood this piece since it appeared as being written in all seriousness, and have read it literally as such. This is jest, this is only jest. You are reading a spoof, satire. I adore Mister Rogers and always will. And the Wall Street Journal beat me to this years ago with an editorial trying to blame something or other on Mister Rogers. So I'm not the first here. Although my thoughts are more satirical here]
In 2010, the story resurfaced. I learned that someone somewhere found the story and posted it. The fire was lit again, though fortunately it didn’t rage too far. I started getting hate emails, however, including some that were utterly vile, even worse this time than the last. It is interesting that someone who evidently thinks so highly of Mr. Rogers would talk to me with such offensive language? Clearly those people were good examples of the kind of spoiled people I was talking about, but more importantly, they took actions of which Mr. Rogers would certainly not approve. The positive messages he sent simply were not received or if they were, they were overshadowed by the “specialness” these people thought of themselves.
If you ask me how I feel now about Mr. Rogers, I honestly have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I see kindness. He taught good manners and respect. I truly believe he would disapprove of how children are being reared today. But on the other, every time I think about his telling children how special they are, I cringe. One responder told me that he believed that Rogers used the wrong word. What he really meant was “unique.” This is quite possibly correct. Every child, indeed every person, is unique and “special” is probably an easier word for a child to process. Nonetheless, I cannot fathom what value is gained from telling a child that he or she is unique. How could their little minds believe this means anything other than there is no one in the world exactly like them? That isn’t exactly a profound or character-building revelation. I suspect most all already are quite aware that we are all different. Even identical twins. I had indicated in my note to Fox & Friends that I would allow my children to watch Mr. Rogers if I had that opportunity today, but I am now not so sure. There are a lot of good ways to get that positive message across. Frankly, I really do not want to hear him say “you’re special” another time.
So I am really not sure what I think of Mr. Rogers on balance. I wish children watching his show had gotten the message that it is a competitive world out there. While people may not be out to “get you,” they are out to get something you want before you can get it. It is a tough competitive world. No one owes you anything. If we teach our children anything less, they grow up feeling entitled.
For a good treatment of this problem and the consequences, read The Trophy Kids Grow Up by Ron Alsop.