Image: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
Mister Rogers and I went to the same college. Well technically, it was his second college. Mister Rogers dropped out of Dartmouth College his freshman year to pursue a degree in music at Rollins College. He’s not only our most famous Ivy League School dropout, but undoubtedly our kindest. I have always loved his message, but now that I am a Mom, I have a deeper connection to it. Music was always Mister Roger’s passion, but it was an emerging medium that needed him more. Mr. Rogers said, “I got into television because I saw people throwing pies at each other’s faces, and that to me was such demeaning behavior. And if there’s anything that bothers me, it’s one person demeaning another. That really makes me mad!” A couple of takeaways here: 1) One can only hope for a world where throwing pies in each other’s faces is the most demeaning thing going on. 2) Mister Rogers got mad? Of course he did! However, what he chose to do with his anger was both gentle and brilliant. Mister Rogers used the very mechanism that made him mad to make a difference. In 1968, Fred Rogers created Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS and hosted all 912 episodes.
I wish “America’s favorite neighbor” was still around today. We need his message more than ever. Although his program focused on early childhood education, his message remains universal. Mister Rogers once said, “Everybody longs to be loved and longs to know that he or she is lovable. Consequently, the greatest thing that we can do is to let somebody know that they are loved and capable of loving.” Mister Rogers treated children’s feelings with dignity and respect. He didn’t talk down to them like little babies. He spoke to them as peers who were curious about the world around them. He gave them a safe space where they could talk about all aspects of life. He brought up topics like divorce, the death of a pet, love and self-respect. He talked about “scary” things and told his audience, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” When you were in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, you had a voice and your feelings mattered. Not just your “good” feelings, all of them!
Last night, my four-year-old had a massive meltdown. It was more than a temper tantrum. It was code-red, I just took the red-eye, haven’t eaten in days and you just stole my baby brother kind of fit. I could feel myself getting heated. She was getting physical and I was over it. My exhausted mind wanted to just put her in her room, slam the door and say, “go to bed!” Instead, I sat outside her door for a minute and took some deep breaths. I thought to myself, what message am I sending her if I just shut the door and walk away from her when she is in this state. If she was physically hurt, I wouldn’t slam a door in her face and say, “deal with it”. If she was sad, I would want to talk to her. Why am I treating her feelings of anger differently? Being angry is a part the human existence. As we get older, we hopefully learn how to control our anger, but children aren’t born with that sort of self-control. My daughter needed me right now. She needed me to help her find a constructive way to work through her anger. I could hear Mister Rogers singing, “What do you do with the mad that you feel. When you feel so mad you could bite? When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong…And nothing you do seems very right?” I started my daughter off with deep breathing and when she started to slowly calm down, I let her talk while I listened. I validated her feelings of anger and told her it was okay to feel this way. I then told her this, “I like you just the way you are.” She smiled. I couldn’t believe it. This worked! My mind was blown. I’m parenting like Mister Rogers from now on. Albeit a tired and cranky version.
Adults have a lot to learn from Mister Rogers and quite frankly our world has a lot to learn from him too. Everyone, no matter what their age, has an essential need for love and kindness. Everyone wants to feel that their voice and their life matters. We live in a world where evil exists. However, as Mister Rogers once said, “we live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” It’s so easy to turn a blind eye, but what would happen if we all walked in his sneakers when we saw something wrong or unjust? What if we all came together as a community? As Mister Rogers said, “The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile.” And to all of you, always remember, “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you; and I like you just the way you are.” – Mr. Rogers