I’d pretend to make dinner in my elaborate play kitchen (my favorite toy, a scary notion I’ll save for another post) and imagine his sweater and sneakers were in my closet. I’d have the table set for dinner and when he got home, we would eat hamburgers and talk about the day. He would listen quietly, with great interest, and he’d tell me that I made the world a better place just by being me.
I was probably five at the most. But even then, I sensed his kindness, his goodness. This was someone I could trust. He was my model of adult authority–rational, measured and patient. The kind of person I wanted to be.
My son didn’t care for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The show moved too slowly for him. It was too quiet, too pastel next to the dayglow neon of Nick Jr. He preferred cartoon children with exceptionally large heads that had superpowers and fought crime. In general, the adults were either absent, evil, or clueless. The makers of these shows talk a good game about empowerment, but they focus far too much on power over others than power over one’s self–exertion over control.
We raise our children quite differently from the way we were raised ourselves. Studies now suggest that we’ve been too generous with our praise and support, that we build false confidence and inflated expectation. What can Fred Rogers tell our children that we haven’t said thousands of times?
From time to time, I work as a middle school librarian and I see arrogance and entitlement in the students I teach–the sense that no one should question their actions or deny their demands. And yet, after the initial flash of irritation has passed, I look into their eyes and see a child who needs to know they can make the world a better place. They’ve learned want, but forgotten about hope.
I’ve spent the morning watching footage of Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers testifying to a congressional committee about the importance of nurturing children and the message he was trying to convey with his program. Mr. Rogers accepting a lifetime achievement award and asking the audience to take ten seconds to think of the people who helped them become who they are, and to be thankful for their presence. Fred Rogers jumping up from his seat to hug a disabled man who had appeared on his show as a child, clearly touched and happy to see him. The sound of his voice brought it all back to me, as if I was sitting on green shag carpeting in a paneled family room in suburban Michigan.
I can’t help but think Fred Rogers would be saddened by what he’d see today–intractable political conflict, the lack of respectful discourse, the way we solve our problems with violent words and actions, our lack of stewardship of the planet and our relationships with each other. I feel so very lost.
My son is past the days of make-believe, and Fred Rogers died many years ago. I have to hope, however, that he lives on inside of me and every other child who believed Mr. Rogers knew how special they were, and that we could believe it, because Mr. Rogers never lied. My birthday wish for Mr. Rogers is that I can pass the hope gave to me to my own son. In his honor, let’s be the caring people he taught us to be, and perhaps from whatever plane he dwells in he can say it again and have it be true.
“You make the world a better place, just by being you.”
For more about Fred Rogers, check out Mary Elizabeth Williams’ Salon Article
Remembering Fred Rogers, March 20, 1928 – February 27, 2003
Words by J. B. Everett