A year ago I saw Won’t You Be My Neighbor? the movie about Mr. Rogers and his long-running children’s television show. I’d always had a love of Mr Rogers and his show, even as an adult. Watching it on that big screen, listening to his words again, my heart swelled and my soul wept. I understood my attraction in a whole new way. I understood myself in a new way.
I have often mused to people that I was a happy kid until age 4 or 5. I thought it was just a general time marker of when I could remember things. But, that is the age I had to say goodbye to my regular time with Mr. Rogers. School got in the way of our chats and our playtime. Up until that time, someone told me I was special, someone liked me just for me. When I got to school I was met with so much judgement and criticism, devoid of support or encouragement for change or improvement. The loving teachers were trying to share one heart to 15 children in a short period of time and make a difference. The children’s voices were more – in number and in volume, but also in scrutiny. In the overwhelming turbulence of children with different ideas of how to interact with each other, I could no longer hear Mr. Rogers’ gentle voice telling me it’s okay to not fit in. I let the world wash away all the good feelings he gave me. (yes, even as an adult I will still call him Mr. Rogers)
Feelings were important to Fred Rogers – not just good ones – all feelings. He understood how influential it is to help children identify and start to understand all the different ways they feel. We have to recognize what we feel in order to learn how to respond to those feelings in safe ways. When we acknowledge our feelings, we start to learn more about who we are as individuals. We grow. Isn’t that what life is about – understanding and growth? Feelings were not shown nor discussed much in our family. It was that stoic, German ancestry I was told. But, Mr. Rogers let me know that it was okay that I felt sad or angry sometimes. When I didn’t feel like I could talk to my family, I talked to my Daniel Tiger puppet, because of course Daniel would understand. Mr. Rogers gave me a safe space, and loving characters with whom to share my troubles.
The things that stick with us through the years are curious. The familiar jingle of Trolley’s bell still makes me smile with the unashamed joy of a toddler. It doesn’t matter where I am or who I’m with – if I hear that ‘ding-ding’ I will whip my head around to look for Trolley. Trolley accepted everyone and took us all to the Neighborhood of Make Believe for adventures. In Make Believe there were celebrations and arguments and cooperation and, sometimes, very real and difficult conversations. But, we weren’t left there, we always came back to Mr. Rogers’ house. There was comfort in that for me, knowing that if things got too intense for me in Make Believe, Trolley would bring me back to the safety of Mr. Rogers soon. And, there, we would talk about those intense feelings I had. There was safety in that place for a child trying to understand a big, scary, angry world.
This movie embraced the protests against Mr. Rogers and the effort to blame ‘entitlement’ attitudes on his show and the way he talked with children. I vaguely remember hearing about this, but seeing accusatory people shouting about my friend on that big screen brought it to life for me. Seeing the anger, even hatred, spit in his direction was shocking. Watching his reactions, hearing his words in response brought me right back to the place of comfort and peace that he always represented for me. There was no anger, no shouting from him. There was acceptance that others’ opinions differed from his. There was respect for their right to voice their concern. There was hope that the protests would be civil. And there was a desire to find new ways to share his message that might be received better, or more completely. We need more responses like this to the anger in our world today. Mr. Rogers believed we all share responsibility for filling our world with love and respect. He believed we must all work together to build a world that will thrive. And calm, thorough education was one of his best responses to the battles that tried to come his way.
Yes, he told children they were special for not doing anything. He told children he liked them just the way they are. For over a decade, people have blamed his teachings for a perceived growth in entitlement attitudes among our youth. His daily message to children has been called doting, creating the child-centered families we see today.
Mr. Rogers is not the problem.
We interpreted his message of all children being special to mean that all children deserved trophies for being a part of something. Too many trophies is not what he wanted. We cherry picked parts of his message and bent it around our own ideals in order to make our well-intentioned but ill-formed attempts at self-esteem building justified. There was so much more to his message and we need to listen to all of it to be successful.
Mr. Rogers’s message was never that each of us should be handed everything we’ve ever wanted in life because we are special. His message was that we each hold an intrinsic value as the unique individual we are. It is not tied to accomplishments, or looks, or money. We are special in spite of any of those things. His message was not to tell people they are magical and infallible – but rather that failing at something, or not being perfect at something does NOT change your value as a person. In this way, we are told that when we lose a job, when our health fails, when we can’t afford the biggest house on the block, when our family struggles – it doesn’t change our worth. When we get a better job, when we receive accolades, when we are financially and emotionally thriving – it doesn’t change our worth.
Trophies for all were not the design. We’re missing the message. We should be teaching our children that the ones who win the trophies are no more special than the ones who don’t. They were possibly more gifted at this particular effort, or put more work into their training and education, or understood a new way to accomplish the goal. We should be celebrating their hard work and effort, and thinking of ways to improve our own effort for the next time. When someone wins a trophy, it does not take away from anyone else.
Mr. Rogers did not dote on children, he respected them. He spoke to children as adults-to-be. He honored their value by showing them that he trusted them with very grown-up ideas. He didn’t hide the hard truths from children. He spoke about discrimination, about war and killing. He did it in ways that made sense to children. By hiding things from our children, we are telling them we don’t believe they are equipped to understand the matter, or the emotions that go along with it. Mr. Rogers believed in a child’s ability to understand concepts well beyond their years and he trusted in his community to help the children feel all the big emotions that come along with difficult ideas.
Mr. Rogers chose his words very carefully ensuring he was not ambiguous, did not make promises, he was inclusive and positive, and spoke without judgement. He would rewrite scripts and songs over and over until he felt the words were just right for the children. He cared immensely for all the children of the world. He cared about their….about OUR thoughts, our ability to thrive in a world that he knew would be fighting against us or at times seeming to route for our failure. He was striving to bolster our inner voice to help us fight back. He wanted us to believe we belong in this world – every one of us. And, if we were in a place where we didn’t seem to fit, then we should find a new place. He never wrote a prescription that said the world had to change for us. We were never meant to be handed success without working for it. He worked very hard every day. He wanted the same for us – hard work toward a goal that fulfills our desires. He was telling us not to give in and sacrifice who we are in order to fit into a world that isn’t ours. We were meant to trust in our specialness, to listen to the truth within our soul and live a life that embraces it and respects the life of others – even when it doesn’t look like our life.
I’ve struggled with my internal voice most of my life. From my visceral reaction to this movie, at seeing Mr. Rogers again and hearing his message, I honestly believe part of my problem was losing his epistle in the business of growing up. I forgot that my grades, my athletic ability, my looks and my clothes aren’t what give me value. I am not less because someone else has more. I truly miss him – some days more than others. When I see his face with that welcoming smile I want to sit at his feet, put my head in his lap and weep for all that I have forgotten about what he tried to teach me.
Read and remember a few of Mr. Rogers’ teachings or learn something new about the care he took when talking with children.
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