Mr. Rogers on being a good parent

Mister Rogers Talks with Parents, by Fred Rogers and Barry Head. New York: Berkley Books. 315 pp. $5.95 (paperback).

My feeling after reading this book is the same one I've had after watching many a ''Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'' TV segment with my young son. Here's a man who truly cares. The gentle, tolerant attitude so evident in the show - from the opening ''Won't you be my neighbor'' song to the final ''It's such a good feeling'' - comes through. But reading Rogers is in some ways a distinctly different experience from watching his TV show. You have a chance to think through some of his basic assumptions about human life.

Take, for instance, this statement: ''If the day ever came when we were able to accept ourselves and our children exactly as we and they are, then I believe we would have come very close to an ultimate understanding of what 'good' parenting means.'' This should, I think, be taken as an affirmation of tolerance for human differences. That's a key to harmony at home as in society at large. But it can also be read as an assertion that human failings and maladies are a ''given,'' something to be adjusted to, not changed. The latter meaning - frequently Rogers's intended meaning - raises questions about human progress. Just where does one draw the line between the tolerable and the intolerable? What is mankind's destiny? Is the acceptance of limitation a key to human happiness, as Rogers so often says in this volume?

But these questions needn't get in the way of the immediate, practical value of much of what Rogers and co-author Barry Head set down here. I found a great deal of wisdom, for instance, in Rogers's emphasis on the very young child's need to establish an identity separate from his or her parents'. ''The issue,'' he says, ''is really one of healthy separation - our children from us and we from them.'' That sounds more like the teen years, doesn't it? But Rogers's observation is that this separating process is ''the major task'' of a child's first two years. Even the familiar ''throwing down'' game - repeatedly tossing utensils and toys from highchair to floor - is, he says, part of the effort to recognize a separate self from ''momma.''

That may be no reason to tolerate such behavior, but it helps put some perplexing antics in a more positive light. Here's a sampling of some of Rogers's other observations:

* Play. He defines it as ''the process of finding new combinations for known things - combinations that may yield new forms of expression, new inventions, new discoveries, and new solutions.'' For young children, he asserts, their work is play. It's helping them discover a lifelong resource of creativity.

* Discipline. This, says Rogers, is the ''everyday process of helping a child learn self-discipline.'' The limits of acceptable behavior are established through the parent's example - even in such things as knocking on a door before entering a room. Rogers speaks of ''power punishment,'' the spanking which, he believes, is often the product of a hurt parental ego. Contrasted to this is ''loving'' punishment - a ''firm reminder'' that there are some limits that have to be observed for good reason. The likely method is restriction on activity or revoking of a privilege.

* Special situations. Rogers goes through a whole series of these, ranging from trips to the barber or dentist to moving or dealing with a death in the family. His basic advice: Learn how to talk, frankly and honestly, with your children. Again, some parents may approach these situations with a set of premises different from Rogers's.

* Television. Rogers is a sharp critic of his own medium: ''Often, the kindest thing we can say about a television program these days is that it is a waste of time.'' He argues that the frantic pace of much TV programming for children works against the development of a capacity for deliberate thought. But he adds: ''What parents give their children will always be more important than what television gives them.''

That goes to the heart of this book. Fred Rogers clearly believes that being a parent is an awesome responsibility, with the potential for nearly illimitable rewards. There is no single right way to go about being a good parent, he says. And raising a child should never be likened to an exam that we pass or fail. The crucial elements, according to Mr. Rogers, are ''trust, example, talk, and caring.'' Those lay the foundation for growth - for both parent and child.

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