What Mr. Rogers Taught Me

A few days ago I saw a preview of the new documentary about Fred Rogers called, “Won’t You be my Neighbor?” Instantly, I remembered being a small child, excited to turn on our old black & white TV and see Mr. Rogers smiling face as he invited me into his living room. With fondness, I recollected watching him take off his “street clothes” and put on his sweater and tennis shoes.

Then when I was about 11 or 12, I was rummaging through my father’s stack of albums and pulled out Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. I started belittling him, saying his show was for babies. It was stupid. And then my father’s stern voice rang through the hallway. “Mr. Rogers is an exemplary human being. His show is intelligent, thoughtful and fun. And his message is one of universal love.”

That shut me up.

Mr. Rogers’s show was a daily reminder of kindness, friendliness and playfulness in the midst of what was a chaotic time in my life. And indeed the makers of this new documentary clearly feel we can use a dose of kindness today (certainly in the United States) and to remember how to be good neighbors.

If you’re moving down memory lane with me, here are my top Mr. Rogers takeaways:

1. Listen

Mr. Rogers was always curious and enjoyed learning about new people and new places. As a child, I was really quiet. I think I didn’t speak often in part because the world felt scary and overwhelming but also because I wanted to understand.

It wasn’t until years later, while reading M Scott Peck's, A Road Less Traveled, that I began to understand the power of listening.  That’s when I realized listening was a honed skill. Before that, I’d always felt “less than” because I wasn’t butting in to every conversation with my smart ideas.

And then I remembered Mr. Rogers, how he observed and listened, even to his puppets.

2. Say Hi & Be Neighborly

It used to be that everyone knew each other. I used to walk through my grandmother’s apartment complex as a little girl, watching as she greeted everyone – young and old. Introducing me, smiling, offering help. In an effort to resurrect civility, I’ve decided to be a welcome wagon in my own neighborhood and bring a gift to all my new neighbors who have moved in recently.

We all crave community and miss the days when friends would just pop over unannounced. What can you do to reach out a friendly hand?

3. Smile

Every day Mr. Rogers greeted me with a genuine smile on his face. Whether he was in a bad mood or not, he smiled.

Have you ever tried to be grouchy and smile at the same time? It doesn’t work. Try it right now. Allow yourself to feel pissy about something and then smile as you talk about it out loud.

What happened?

It goes away, right!

Smiling is powerful. It has the ability to not only lift others’ spirits but your own as well.

4. Help is Always Available

One of the things I especially loved about Mr. Rogers’ show was that he answered kids questions about confusing adult things like unemployment, divorce, segregation and even assassination.

He shed light on issues and helped me feel less alone and less powerful. Through him I realized that knowledge is power. I also saw that I never had to be alone with my not knowing. That I could ask for help from caring adults.

One of the new things I learned about Fred Rogers was that he was an ordained minister and I (like many children my age) were his parishioners. I’d like to make his memory proud by continuing his legacy of love and kindness. Care to join me?

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PS - Here's the trailer for the documentary