Would You Be My Neighbor?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first-ever broadcast of “Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood” – a low-budget public television show created by Fred Rogers. He would go on to create nearly 900 episodes in all, helping generations of children and their families navigate the sometimes difficult terrain of childhood with his stories, puppets and songs. Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister who saw it as his mission in life to foster and encourage the healthy social and emotional development of children. Television was just the medium he chose to do it.

I remember watching it after I came home from school and being mesmerized: the slow deliberate pace, the comforting routines, the calm and reassuring voice. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was all about giving encouragement and support. Looking back on it now, I think what set him apart is that he never “talked down” to children. He treated them as equals, deserving of the same respect that grown-ups get.

In Mr. Rogers, we also have a great example of what quiet leadership can look like. Not the brash, aggressive kind that plays well on TV or Twitter, but the moral kind that changes hearts and minds. If you want to see a great example of leadership, witness Mr. Rogers testifying before Congress about the importance of public television. In seven minutes of quietly spoken appeal, he sways the gruff committee chair into granting him more funding. “Congratulations!” says the senator. “You’ve earned your $20 million.” Fred Rogers died in 2003, but thankfully his many lessons still live on. Here is some of what I took away from his life and legacy.

It’s about respect
In one well-known episode, Mr. Rogers chats with Jeff Erlanger, an 11-year old boy in a wheelchair. After introducing him to the viewers as his “friend,” he gets the boy chatting about himself, his interests, his hobbies, his family and so on. He is genuinely curious and interested in what the boy has to say. Later on, he gets Jeff to join him in singing the song, “It’s you I like.” It’s an incredibly powerful and affecting scene that teaches his young audience about the dignity of all lives, including those who may look different from us. No surprise then, that he also featured African-American actor François Clemmons in the recurring role of “Officer Clemmons.” This in itself is quite remarkable, given that most children watching television in the 1960s/70s were not often exposed to black men in positions of authority. But in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, it’s all about respect. Respect for ourselves, and respect for each other. 

Your feelings are okay
Mr. Rogers understood the importance of healthy emotional regulation. That it’s okay to express your feelings, even the unpleasant ones. He believed in being emotionally honest and encouraged children to do the same. It’s okay to feel confused, mad, sad or glad – even all at once. It’s what you do with those feelings that matter. In this way, he was able to talk about all the usual childhood fears – things like going to the doctor, getting a haircut, starting school. But also, he could talk about more serious matters affecting the lives of children. Things like war, divorce and even death. In his own words: “Anything that is human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable is more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us to know we are not alone.”

Acceptance is the key
Mr. Rogers believed that we are at our best when we are being our true authentic selves. And he wholly embodied this ideal – no different off camera than he was standing in front of it. It’s interesting now (with the benefit of Youtube) to watch him interact with snarky TV personalities, people like David Letterman and Joan Rivers. It’s as if they almost don’t know what to make of him. His sincerity unsettles them, making them appear slightly uncomfortable. But slowly they adjust and open up, appearing to become more authentic versions of themselves. In his own words: “Every one of us longs to be in touch with honesty. I think we’re really attracted to people who will share some of their real self with us.” And he certainly shared himself with others.

Mr. Rogers understood that loving acceptance is at the root of everything – all learning, all growth, all healthy relationships. It seems like we are living in dark times, so it’s good to be reminded that one person’s quiet leadership can make a positive difference in the world. “There are three ways to ultimate success,” said Mr. Rogers. “The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.”

I don’t believe he left anything out.

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