Lawrence Diller M.D.

The Last Normal Child

Mr. Rogers Was Wrong

Has the emphasis on children's feeling good and self-esteem backfired?

Posted Apr 20, 2008

He closes his review with the following quote, "It stands to reason, though, that parents must be part of the problem. Some of us have raised dummies and the disengaged not on purpose, surely, but perhaps because we listened to Mr. Rogers and told them (the kids) too often that we liked them just the way they were."

I've watched with concern, helplessness, frustration, and bemusement the fruits of our culture's over-emphasis on feelings in general and its fixation on children's self-image and self-esteem. These are huge cultural trends (read the first essay in my book, The Last Normal Child) that are now playing themselves out, as children raised under these "rules" are now maturing into their mid-20s.

A rash of books, including my own, is documenting the unintended consequences of all this concern and fussing. They include, in no particular order: Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety by Judith Warner, The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine, One Nation Under Therapy by Sally Satel, and most recently, A Nation of Wimps by Psychology Today's Hara Marano. I'm not sure what else is happening out there in media land (TV documentaries pending or websites, etc.), but these books could be signaling a tipping point (finally) in our culture's over-obsession with feelings and feeling good—at least on how it can harm our children.

I've been thinking for years that if you want kids to feel good about themselves (and in a moment I'll tell whether that's even all that important), there have to be three ingredients. First and foremost, you've got to get those kids to perform. Here I'm not calling for pre-Harvard/Stanford performance in preschool.

But rather if a kid only listens to his/her parents once out of five times, and the parents on the fifth time congratulate the kid for his excellent behavior, I can tell you that kid is still going to feel lousy about himself, because four of five times, he didn't do what his/her parents said, and internally to kids that means, "I'm bad." (No matter how much you say, "It's not you, Johnny, that's bad—it's what you did," kids until about age 8 cannot intellectually make the distinction—ask Piaget.) So you've got to get that kid to comply, whether through using positives or, dare I say, discipline (punishment lights up in red on my email screen every time I use the word, which I find totally amusing and apropos).

Next, when the kid does perform, you've got to acknowledge it; otherwise, the kid never knows what's good enough. This, in general, I don't find a problem in the families I work with, in that parents are saying "good job" these days for kids who handle breathing and blinking well enough.

Finally—and this comes much later for most kids—is an acknowledgment of difference—meaning everybody's different, and you can't be good at everything. This point hits kids particularly in early adolescence and may not get worked out until one's 20s (that long ain't that bad, by the way). However, a kid with learning differences may experience this crisis in elementary school, so acknowledging differences and finding areas of relative competency (everyone has at least one or two) can be helpful.

Still and all, the whole self-image/self-esteem concern is blown way out of proportion in terms of long-term outcomes. Baumgarten has shown quite strongly that self-esteem under the age of 13 has no predictive value on how kids turn out in their mid-20s. There are minimal correlations for teen's self-esteem and young adult outcomes. So all this worry about how children feel—and of course we'd prefer as parents that our kids feel good—if it leads to weird and untoward outcomes (like wimps or increased diagnoses of ADD/ADHD), should be challenged.

So now we're getting all these books. Ironically, the only thing that hasn't changed is parents' readiness to forego their own common sense and the wisdom of grandparents (yeah, our parents in the '50s and '60s didn't seem to do all that bad, after all) and continue to turn to experts who are now reversing 180 degrees their advice from 25 years ago.

And you know, it really all doesn't matter in the end. Judith Rich Harris was pilloried 10 years ago with her book, The Nurture Assumption, because she was interpreted by critics as saying it's all genetic, and parenting doesn't matter. Well, if you look at identical twins reared apart by different families, you're impressed with how similar they are by the time they reach 30. But Harris never said parenting doesn't matter.

If you married your spouse with the idea that you could fundamentally change his/her personality and behavior, most of us would consider that naive. However, how you act with your spouse on a day-to-day basis could make a big difference in the quality of that ongoing relationship. Harris uses that example to try to get parents to chill some in their worry and interventions over their kids.

Hey, it'll mostly all work out—even those kids who've been babied and pampered and worried over by those helicopter parents. It'll all work out. Mr. Rodgers wasn't wrong. He doesn't matter.