Every time a disaster strikes or our faith in the good in the world is tested – and it feels like it happens on a weekly basis now, doesn’t it? – the quote from Mister Rogers starts going around:
Like most pithy sayings, it’s popular because it’s true. After every single man-made or natural disaster, follow-up stories include the first responders and private citizens rushing to help whomever they can, however they can.
I think there’s another reason we see this quote come up so often, though, and that’s because of who said it: Fred Rogers, the beloved host of the PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was such a deceptively simple show that I’m not sure it could be made now. Fred Rogers, a nice man, comes home, puts on a warm cardigan that his mother made, slips on his sneakers and talks to children. It’s the last part that’s still revolutionary (as much as I love changing into my comfy clothes when I get home). Fred Rogers talks to children, as though they’re real people, because they are. Then he meets people doing their work and learns about the things they know how to do and are interested in. Then he plays pretend in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
These are the reasons we keep going back to Mister Rogers when times are tough. Fred Rogers talks to everyone as though they are important, listens to people and is interested in them, and believes in make-believe. Very few people in the media offer this to children, and barely any offer it to adults (our Blog Patron Saint, Amy Poehler, maybe – these figures exist, but they aren’t always easy to find). Let’s look at this a little closer, if only because it’s a positive thing to be discussing at a time full of negative things:
Fred Rogers Recognizes That Children (And People!) Are Important
Right now all episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood are streaming on Twitch. I have kept several episodes from the 1960s and 1970s on in the background as I’ve gone about my work this week, and it’s exactly as I remember from my early childhood in the 1980s and 1990s. Mister Rogers – I know we can call him Fred but he’s Mister Rogers forever to me – offers constant affirmations that his audience is exactly right just as they are. This is probably the genesis of the “everybody is special” movement that some folks like to complain about, but when you watch Mister Rogers you can’t help but realize that that’s exactly true. Every single person is different from every single other person, and that in itself is a wonderful thing.
Sometimes I feel like Mister Rogers was saying these things as much for the parents watching as the kids. Or, could he have seen into the future, the 30-year-olds live-streaming from their desks at work during a particularly dire news cycle.
Scratch that: sometimes he directly addresses the grown-ups, because I think he realizes that adults can feel just as uncertain of themselves as preschoolers:
Adapted for adults, the same message:
As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has–or ever will have–something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.
This affirmation that who you are and what you do matters to your community keeps us coming back to Mister Rogers. In sociology terms, he deals in spheres of influence. Maybe you can’t fix the big troubles in the world, but you can make your neighborhood a better place. Fred said it best:
But how do we make goodness attractive? By doing whatever we can do to bring courage to those whose lives move near our own–by treating our ‘neighbor’ at least as well as we treat ourselves and allowing that to inform everything that we produce.
Mister Rogers also realizes that big concepts, like language, aren’t too big for children. They’re actually just right, because children are learning about them for the first time:
With just a few words changed, it’s just the thing adults need to hear, too:
“What matters isn’t how a person’s inner life finally puts together the alphabet and numbers of his outer life. What really matters is whether he uses the alphabet for the declaration of a war or the description of a sunrise–his numbers for the final count at Buchenwald or the specifics of a brand-new bridge.”
It’s not Mister Rogers, it’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In every episode, Mister Rogers would learn about different members of his community: artists and athletes and puppeteers, but also folks in those everyday jobs that fascinate children so much. Yo Yo Ma was a pretty cool guest, but so were teachers and trash collectors. We all lost our cool over a mail carrier every single episode (Mr. McFeely was fantastic, after all). This is the cynicism-free attitude I love to see and try to remember to display. We don’t know everything about everything, and sometimes the most fascinating thing in the world is just to understand what someone other than ourselves finds fascinating, or how a stranger fills their time. I don’t get many chances to visit crayon factories like Mister Rogers did, but I can still ask questions and listen to answers. “Everybody is special” isn’t a call to self-importance, it’s a call to remember how important every single person you meet is.
… and I do, too. As a child I’d spend hours in my backyard imagining I was growing a World War II victory garden or traveling the Oregon trail. My basement was a garden-level apartment I lived in all by myself. Once I was “too old” for make-believe I was in acting classes, where I found the other kids who hadn’t stopped pretending, either. But as Mister Rogers tells us, each person is different. I have never known a child who didn’t love make believe, but I have known a lot of children who need help with it. When I start pretending with some of my nieces and nephews, I see that spark of “I didn’t know I could see things that way!,” the same spark we adults get when a comedian frames a familiar concept in a new way. Some kids get a refrigerator box and instantly turn it into a bus, spaceship and, well, refrigerator box – but one they’re trapped inside on a mail truck on an expressway careening into the ocean. Other kids need an adult to hand them some markers and safety scissors and ask them what they think that box could be. That’s what Mister Rogers does.
In Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the Neighborhood of Make-Believe provides a ready-made framework to pretend. There is King Friday, Henrietta Pussycat and my grouchy favorite, Lady Elaine. Children know that they’re all puppets and they know that a fun grown-up is making them come to life. This is infinitely better than puppets alone. Kids learn that we have the power to make scenarios and characters exist where nothing did before. Somebody versed in childhood development might tell you that this is teaching cause and effect or concrete versus abstract, but I think pretending is an end unto itself. For the kids and grownups who need a little push to pretend, Mister Rogers teaches us that make-believe is magical, fun, and available to us any time, anywhere.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor
Disasters that occur continents away are still hard to take, and that’s because of something Mister Rogers knew all along: we are all neighbors. While we all have Mister Rogers on the brain, let’s try to heed some of his lessons. Listen, look, and create. Let’s go make a snappy new day.