Erica Komisar is a psychoanalyst in New York City and author of “Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters.” In recent weeks, she’s written powerfully about Fred Rogers, political correctness, and the faith of children as a columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
Angelus contributing editor Kathryn Jean Lopez asked her some questions about parenting, nostalgia, and what our renewed interest in Mr. Rogers in 2019 might promise for the future.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: In your op-ed for the Wall Street Journal on Fred Rogers and children, you wrote, “Rogers rejected the old-fashioned idea that children are to be seen and not heard. He believed adults should lead them with love and understanding, not fear and punishment. Children are delicate human beings, emotionally sensitive and neurologically fragile. To develop emotional and mental health, they need respect and tenderness — the freedom to express all their feelings and the security of being acknowledged by the adults who care for them.”
Erica Komisar: It would be incorrect to say that the past is something to idealize in terms of parenting. Many mothers did stay home, fathers and mothers attended their children’s sports events and there was more of a physical presence of family in children’s lives in the past.
However, there was also a great deal of emotional insensitivity, repression of emotion, and treating children as if they were to be seen and not heard. Parents did not necessarily value children as separate individuals who had a great deal to offer.
Fred Rogers became a model for sensitivity and empathy toward children at a time when parents were still spanking children and not engaging them emotionally or valuing their individual voices.
The new model is one of not just loving our children, but understanding them; not just spending more time with them physically, but showing up emotionally; valuing what they feel and what they say; showing interest in them as people not just for what they achieve. So we are, in fact, creating a new model of parenting.
Komisar: Nostalgia over Fred Rogers is really recognition of his incredible contribution to parenting and child development and our understanding of how to raise healthy children. He was really the first public figure to respect children and childhood and to connect the way we treat our children to their mental health and personality development.
I think many adults are longing for and wishing they had parents who were as emotionally attuned and sensitive as Mr. Rogers. There is so much pain in adults due to insensitivity and neglect in their own childhood. Nostalgia is not necessarily wishing for something we had, rather something we wish we had and never had.
Komisar: Mr. Rogers advocated kindness and empathy toward all human beings. He was a minister as well as a TV personality. His goal was to get adults to recognize that we are all valuable and lovable in the eyes of God. Children do not need to do anything special or achieve great things to be valuable or loved. This is a message that we need desperately today.
Komisar: No, you are correct, I did not give my piece its title.
However, I do say in the piece, if you do not believe in God or heaven, you have to come up with a believable story to reassure your children. That is a white lie if you do not believe in God and heaven.
But, from a child development perspective, children cannot cope with the finality of death. It is far too frightening to tell your young child that they are dust when they die. They need to have hope and a belief that loss is not final.
Without that hope, they may become frightened and anxious about the future and ultimate losses. For believers it is not lying. But for nonbelievers it is a white lie, which protects the fragile psyches of their children and perhaps encourages them to rethink their own beliefs.
Komisar: Faith or belief in magical things we cannot see or touch is important to children. From early childhood, imagination and imaginary play is a way that children work through their conflicts and cope with frustration and loss. Fantasy is critical for social emotional development.
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