A few days ago, I saw the Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? with my parents. Mr. Rogers began his show in 1968 when I was three years old, so suffice it to say he was an influential figure of my childhood. Sitting in the theater, I was transported back in time, knowing all the words to the songs.
I rewatched these television moments as an adult, a parent, a therapist, and an admittedly talked-out speaker worn out from an arduous travel schedule of last several months meeting with parents and professionals. I expend a lot of energy seeking balance. I have a genuinely optimistic nature, but I feel real sadness and frustration at what families, children, clinicians and teachers tell me and show me.
I cried throughout the movie. There were so many touching moments of Mr. Rogers interacting with young children. He would bend down to talk to them in such a genuine way. He showed us a fish that died in his tank to talk about death, and he sang with a little boy in a wheelchair to show us courage.
When the last scene closed and the credits started, three big sobs came out of me. It’s been an excruciating few months. As a therapist and trainer I do a lot of talking and a lot of listening, where I have skills to keep my own feelings in check.
That night, Mr. Rogers was having none of it. The camera’s close up on his sweet expression and authentic gaze forced me to surrender all of the feelings I manage as an adult to control: anger, fear, empathy, sadness, and wonder.
What Mr. Rogers Taught Me in Won’t You Be My Neighbor
I have the summer to recharge. Being back in touch with Mr. Rogers will help, I’m sure. Here’s what I took from this remarkable teacher whose message is so needed.
It’s easy to blame the state of our children’s emotional wellbeing entirely on the climate of the last several months, but the trends we are seeing in anxiety, depression, trauma, and bullying are trends of the last decade, not the last two years.
The ways that humans are awful to each other and the impact on our children is not a trend. The topic that Mr. Rogers tackled head on during the first week of his show from 1968 was shockingly current.
Mr. Rogers understood both the big macro perspective as he confronted our culture head on, but he clearly valued the micro, perhaps even more so. The clips shown in the film of his interactions with children–the focus, the connection, the respect–made me weep. He looked at you right in the eye. He listened intently. He slowed down.
Critics of Mr. Rogers blame him for contributing to a self-involved generation of people who see themselves as special, who are spoiled and unable to cope. I can understand how it might look that way on the surface. He was a gentle, sweet man. He talked about feelings. He was easy to mock. But listen more carefully and you will hear Mr. Rogers talking about HOW to handle strong emotions, HOW to communicate, HOW to let grown ups know when you need help, and HOW to work through conflict. He modeled problem solving. He normalized the difficult parts of growing up so children didn’t feel alone.
He helped us step into–not away from–difficult topics and better manage them together.
As we struggle now with bullying, suicide, anxiety, loneliness, and addiction, aren’t these the VERY SKILLS that are essential to most prevention and treatment programs? And to loving parenting? Mr. Rogers did tell us we were special, because he wanted to convey that we were worthy of love without doing something exceptional.
More importantly, he modeled tolerance and acceptance. He spoke of evil as being the act of purposely making a person feel they are less. He did not excuse us from the responsibility of being a decent human being nor shy away from the painful parts of being in the world.
Being Good Neighbors
Fred Roger’s voice has been necessary for the last 50 years…and we certainly need to hear it loudly and clearly now.
“The greatest thing that we can do is help somebody know that they are loved and capable of loving.”
So, everyday this summer, do something Fred-like. Get down on the floor to play. Put your phone away. Have ice cream for dinner. Make forts in the living room or sleep in the back yard. Talk about things like colors and clouds.
Sing Mr. Roger’s opening (or closing) song at the top of your lungs, and keep singing even when your teenager begs you to please stop! And show your family the value of connection above all else. It will help you, too.
Wrap your arms around someone. Boy, we need it.
There’s much to be anxious and angry about, but I must wonder how children are absorbing our vitriol. Pay attention to that.
Please go see the film, because adults and the children we love need a big reminder of what Mr. Rogers worked to teach us, way back then, about becoming closer.
While I recharge over the summer and prepare for a full fall schedule of workshops and webinars, I keep hearing Mr. Rogers’ voice guide me to that place where children want and need to connect. I am reminded that Mr. Roger’s message was never just meant for children. Even though I knew the lyrics by heart as a preschooler, we are never done with the lessons of kindness and acceptance.
Feature image from the film, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jim Judkis / Focus Features