Coddling and Kindness
Father Gregory Boyle, who welcomes hardened gang members into compassionate community through his nonprofit Homeboy Industries, has been accused of “coddling” these young men and women. Detractors say this as if coddling were a terrible thing, perhaps as bad as throttling them.
On “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Fred Rogers used to gaze kindly into the eye of the camera to make his television listeners feel that he was talking directly to them. Then, he’d say, “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you.” For this, he has been blamed for creating a generation of selfish brats who think they deserve to rewarded for doing nothing, and who have no stamina for hard work.
In the United States, we tend to think that gentleness, respect, appreciation, forgiveness, understanding, or attention creates spoiled children and self-centered adults.
A Fear of Paying Attention
I’m reminded of adults who say about a fussy or whiny child, “Ignore her. She just wants attention,” as if there were something wrong with wanting attention, as if attention weren’t a natural and universal need.
As infants and children, we are dependent on adults to take care of us. Somehow we have to let those adults know when we hurt, when something feels wrong inside us. We have to ask for help. Yet if we are ignored, derided, or chastised for expressing needs, especially if we haven’t learned how to express them directly and clearly, we will never learn to get our needs met except by passive-aggressive or manipulative means. Besides, we all need to feel seen, heard, and understood. There’s nothing wrong with that. Fatherless children, television viewers, and the rest of us need to know we are cared for just because we’re who we are.
This doesn’t sit well with some people. In 2007, for instance, Fox News commentators asserted that Rogers was to blame for the rise of the “me” generation and for what they said is a 25-year increase in the level of narcissism in young people. Some researchers question whether narcissism is really on the rise.  Even if it is, however, such a complex condition can’t be attributed to a single cause.
There’s Room for Improvement
Nonetheless, one Fox commentator wondered, “Why didn’t he say, ‘You know what, there’s a lot of [room for] improvement, keep working on yourself’”?
Another chimed in, “Yeah, the world owes you nothing . . . You’ve got to prove it.” 
This, they surmised, would be a much better message to give children, because then they’d grow up working hard, getting good grades, and succeeding in business.
Maybe they would. When we have to earn love as children, we wear ourselves out trying to earn love as adults. It doesn’t work, though, because love can’t be earned. If it is, it isn’t love.
Becoming a Gift to the World
Yet anyone who has watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood would know that Rogers didn’t tell his listeners they could be anything they wanted or that they needn’t work hard. Rather, he told the children they were loved even if they weren’t popular, even if they made mistakes, even if they sometimes hurt others. Each of them had within them something unique and beautiful that could blossom and become a gift to the world.
In the case of the gang members whom Boyle coddles, many of them blossom under the gentle watering of his attention and care. They become kinder, wanting to please. They discover hope. With the coddling of the Homeboy Industries’ community, they discover they are worthy, and they imagine they might find success in the wider world that, up to that point, they couldn’t comprehend.
It’s true that some people respond well to jail time or threats, working hard to avoid further punishment. Most of these individuals, though, experienced enough love to make them care about their lives and believe that change is possible. The others, those who childhoods were filled with abuse and despair, won’t bother trying to leave a world of crime and violence unless someone like Boyle reminds them, over and over, that they have a piece of God inside.
To describe one of the homies he has come to love, Boyle quotes Walt Whitman: “I am larger, better than I thought. I did not know I held such goodness.” 
Speaking to Our Goodness
The quote comes from Whitman’s poem, “Song of the Open Road,” a paean to nature, to the majesty of the universe, to the wonders of freedom, and to the love that can be found as the road brings together all kinds of humans from all the nations of the world. Shaking off “the holds that would hold me,” and breathing in “great draughts of space,” the poem’s narrator discovers he has become larger and better than he ever knew, filled with an innate goodness he didn’t know he possessed. 
It is to this goodness that Rogers spoke when he told the children how special they were. He meant that within them was more goodness than they thought possible. In his 2002 commencement speech at Dartmouth University, Rogers explained that when he said into the studio camera that he liked everyone, he meant he liked that part of them that stands “for those things without which humankind cannot survive.”  Things like love, peace, and justice.
What Fred Rogers, Gregory Boyle, and even Walt Whitman understood was that we don’t learn to express that just and loving part of us by being chastened or beaten or shamed. Nor does it help to hear that we should “buck up” or stop asking for attention or work hard if we want to get ahead. We learn to express love and strive for peace and champion justice when we feel cared for and nurtured. As Rogers said, “Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.” 
Seeing Our True Nature
Similarly, Boyle wrote, “God won’t be loving a homie more if he stops gang-banging.”  The God Boyle is talking about longs for us to be freed from the trauma of our lives so we will stop acting that trauma out on the world. When we accept that we are loved, that we are worthy, we can develop the strength to look at our true nature. If we do that, then we “see clearly,” as Buddhist teacher Sylvia Borstein says.  We understand our true nature and recognize the devastation caused by suffering in the world, including the ways we contribute to that devastation. Then, we change. “We behave impeccably.” 
If this is true, it is also true that when we feel loved, we don’t grow into selfish, narcissistic, entitled adults. We gain confidence when we understand we have a special place inside us that is wise and beautiful and whole. This doesn’t make us lazy, though it might mean we aren’t obsessed with worldly success. It doesn’t make us snobbish or insensitive, though it might mean we can slough off the cruel judgments of others. With true confidence in ourselves comes humility, an ability to accept our limitations, a willingness to acknowledge our shortcomings, and a desire to grow and change, to blossom, to become our best selves.
The Dangers of False Praise
Of course, parents who fawn over their children, who praise their every breath, who rescue them from frustration and disappointment do not help. Indeed, if anything breeds the narcissism Fox News claim is rampant among our young adults, it would be this, an attention that does not see the child as an individual, that does not truly notice, listen, or care.
Maybe it would be better to be told to told you’re not so great, that you need to work harder, than to be told you’re perfect, that everything you produce is wonderful, that you can do no wrong. At least the former assumes the child has some capacity to grow and become a person of value, even if she has no value at the moment. The child who is absently patted on the head – “Oh, isn’t that pretty?” – decides there’s no point in trying, for no one cares.
Rogers said, “Children feel safer when they know the rules.”  He understood that rules, limits, accountability, and honest appraisal are important. There are things in this world we need to earn, but love is not one of them. When love is dribbled out to us or withheld entirely, we grow up twisted, angry, fearful, desperate, even cruel. We grow into adults who tell children they have to prove their worth and who withhold love not only by punishing and demanding unquestioned obedience, but also by denying attention.
Love as a Salve
On the other hand, if we realize we are special, we don’t want to hurt anyone else, because we know others are special, too. When we really care for ourselves – not in that fake way reflected in preening and self-importance, but with deep understanding and honest compassion – then we can care about others.
That’s why Boyle offers love as “the only reliable salve.”  That’s why Rogers gazed into the camera so he could connect with each child in the audience to make that child feel seen and known and cared about. This is how we heal, by taking in the love we deserve, the love that is there for us if we but open our hearts to it. We do what we must to build a life that fits our inner being, and we work hard to maintain that life. When we have been loved, when we have been attended to, we come to care not only about ourselves, but also about everyone else. Then, like Rogers and Boyle, we can bring healing to the world.
In faith and fondness,
- For example, Dingfelder, Sadie F., “Reflecting on Narcissism,” American Psychological Association, February 2011, Vol. 42, No. 2, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/02/narcissism, accessed 5/13/19.
- Watch the video clip of the Fox News episode at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5JkzyGXJ2w. To read a discussion of that clip, see “Mr. Rogers Is an Evil Man,” Fox News, 2007, embedded in Colburn, Randall, “It’s 3 P.M., Let’s Watch Fox News Blame Mr. Rogers for ‘Ruining an Entire Generation,’ Av News, July 23, 2018, https://news.avclub.com/its-3-p-m-lets-watch-fox-news-blame-mr-rogers-for-r-1827757092, accessed 5/13/19.
- Boyle, Gregory, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, Simon & Schuster Audio, 2017, Chapter 4, 3:02:39.
- Whitman, Walt, “Song of the Open Road,” Leaves of Grass, self published, 1855, 120.
- “Revisiting Fred Rogers’ 2002 Commencement Address,” Dartmouth News, March 27, 2018, https://news.dartmouth.edu/news/2018/03/revisiting-fred-rogers-2002-commencement-address, accessed 5/13/2019.
- Quoted in many places, such as Bertram, Colin, “How Fred Rogers Changed Children’s Television,” Biography, June 14, 2018, https://www.biography.com/news/how-mister-rogers-changed-childrens-television, accessed 5/18/19.
- Boyle Chapter 6 4:05:46.
- Borstein, Sylvia, “The Message of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths,” Lion’s Roar, July 30, 2018, https://www.lionsroar.com/pay-attention-for-goodness-sake/, accessed 5/13/19.
- Rogers, Fred, quoted by the Fred Rogers Center, https://www.fredrogerscenter.org/about-us/about-fred/quotes/, accessed 5/18/19.
- Boyle Chapter 10 7:39:52.
Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved