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I have found the past few weeks more than a little discouraging. I have been watching and reading the news and have seen some distressing things going on. There is clearly a lot of sadness and anger in the world. I also noticed while reading the news that it is the 50th anniversary of the first airing of the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It made me think that more than ever, we still need Mister Rogers.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a half hour public television show created by Fred Rogers that aired from 1968 to 2001, ending just a few weeks before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. It remained in reruns and syndication until 2008. There is still a bit of him around in the spin-off Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which currently airs on PBS.
Mister Rogers always began his show the same way. He would walk through the door wearing a suit and tie, singing “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…won’t you be my neighbor?” While singing, he would go about taking off his jacket and dress shoes, changing into a cardigan and well worn sneakers. He would then spend the next half hour talking directly into the camera in his slow and relaxed manner. Watching his show was as comfortable as those shoes he changed into. He always encouraged children and never shied away from talking about difficult subjects like divorce, death, or war.
The world was a tumultuous place when the show began airing, and he strove to explain things in such a way that children could understand. It was a time of political unrest, the Vietnam War, and social change. Sound familiar? He talked about the assassination of Bobby Kennedy on his show. He showed us some crazy stuff. I remember one episode where he showed a live birth of kittens. And he showed it ALL. 🙂 He talked about ways to address anger and sadness in healthy ways. He always sang little songs to help us understand.
He had guests come to his house that gave him opportunities to discuss topics like music, movies, sign language, animals, how things are made, and even how not be afraid of people with disabilities. The show was very low tech, especially compared to the manic nature of today’s children’s programming. While his show did educate, it was a bit different from other PBS shows of the time like Sesame Street that sought to teach educational skills. More than anything, I think he sought to VALIDATE. He made us feel like whoever or whatever we were, we were exactly the way we were supposed to be, and he liked us just the way we were. He said he purposely never changed the set of his show because he felt that children needed something that was reliable and that they could count on not to change. Children crave routine and structure, and every time a child tuned in to Mister Rogers, he or she knew exactly what to expect. In a world gone crazy, the importance of that cannot be overstated.
He was fearless and unflinching in the subjects he tackled. He never condescended to children. He gave it to us straight. I was watching a special about Mister Rogers and heard the comedienne Sarah Silverman say, “You know what I loved about him? He never lied to kids.” My great-grandmother used to say that you should treat children as the adults you’d like them to become. What she meant was, if you want them to be respectful, treat them with respect. If you want them to be kind, treat them with kindness. Honest? Deal with them truthfully. If you want them to have a large vocabulary, ditch the baby talk. I think that is why Mister Rogers is so beloved. He never talked down to us. He said, “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self. I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away.”
So I was going over some of the events of the past few weeks.
- Another school shooting.
- Roseanne Barr tweeted that Valerie Jarrett was the product of the Muslim Brotherhood and an ape. Her newly rebooted show was cancelled.
- Ivanka Trump posted a picture of herself with her small child with the caption “My Sunday morning.” It was met with startling vitriol, with one commenter saying, “F%#@ your Sunday morning! Why don’t you get your dad to find those missing immigrant children?”
- Samantha Bee also came after her, calling her a “feckless $%&@”, a vulgar word that no one should call another person, especially another woman. Bee did not lose her show, but she now must work with censors.
- Handbag designer Kate Spade committed suicide.
- A few days later, famed chef Anthony Bourdain also committed suicide.
- After the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a baker who chose not to make a wedding cake for a gay couple based on his religious beliefs, a hardware store owner in the same town put up a “No Gays Allowed” sign on his store.
- A Starbucks employee wrote “Beaner” as the name on the cup of a drink order placed by an Hispanic man.
I struggle to make sense of so much of this.
I do not understand mass shootings. I don’t understand why shooters choose to kill innocent people who have done nothing to them. And even if someone had wronged them, why react with violence? And why are these shooters so often white teenage males from small towns? What is going on that we are missing?
What was the impetus for Roseanne’s behavior? I haven’t heard anything about Valerie Jarrett in the news since the presidential election in 2016. So why her? Did Roseanne just wake up that day and say, “I think I’ll tweet an insult about someone?”
That Ivanka Trump picture thing really surprised me. It was just a sweet picture of her with her child. Yet the internet went NUTS. I guess it could be considered tone deaf to post it when the news was about how our government has lost track of some immigrant children placed with sponsors. I get that. But did it warrant the profanity and vulgarity that ensued? I don’t think so.
Kate Spade’s suicide. I have carried her handbags since the 90’s. They are fun and perky and completely unstuffy. She appeared to have so much in her life and was launching a comeback after taking time out of the fashion industry to raise her daughter. The fashion business is cruel. I started my work life in that business, and worked for a Miranda Priestly decades before Meryl Streep brought her to life on screen. I was shocked by the viciousness of that business. I don’t know if that industry contributed to Kate’s decision to end her life. I am just so saddened to think about what must have happened to Kate Spade for her to think that leaving a 13-year-old daughter without her mother was the better choice.
Same with Anthony Bourdain. On the top of his career game, filming an upcoming show, also with a young daughter. Yet he chose to end his life.
Mister Rogers said, “Whether we’re a preschooler or a young teen, a graduating college senior or a retired person, we human beings all want to know that we’re acceptable, that our being alive somehow makes a difference in the lives of others.” Maybe that is what they were searching for and couldn’t find.
I was surprised that the Supreme Court sided with the baker in the case of refusing to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. Even though same-sex marriage was not yet widely legal when this first happened, given today’s legislation, I thought the court would side with the couple. I personally don’t understand why a couple would want someone making their cake who didn’t want to. I would just go down the street to someone who would be happy to make it. I understand the baker not wanting to be forced to do something against his religious beliefs. I don’t get why the hardware store owner felt the need to put the “No Gays” sign on his business. Contributing to a wedding between two people that was in conflict with one’s religious beliefs is a conundrum. Selling a hammer to a gay person hardly violates one’s religious beliefs on same sex marriage, does it?
And all this activity at Starbucks. They closed all their stores for a day to give their employees sensitivity training. I really have a hard time believing there are people working at Starbucks who need training to know that you don’t write derogatory nicknames on cups. Starbucks has been dealing with a number of racial issues lately. Can people really be this unaware? Maybe they are. I just don’t know.
I think we have completely lost our ability to civilly DISAGREE with each other. We can’t hear and politely and respectfully disagree with one another’s positions. If you dare disagree with something, especially something that is considered politically correct, you get called some type of “phobe.” If you disagree with same sex marriage, someone hurls at you that you are homophobic. If you disagree with illegal immigration, someone screams that you are xenophobic. If you disagree with a tenet of Islam, you are Islamophobic. I think this designation isn’t necessarily correct. To disagree doesn’t necessarily mean you FEAR. According to the dictionary, the term “phobic” means having or involving an extreme or irrational fear of something. Why can’t a person disagree with something without being told they fear it? We need a new word.
A few weeks ago a woman I don’t even know tore me up in a Facebook group topic discussion. The topic had the potential to be a powder keg, but so far we had all managed to keep it civil. Then, as sometimes happens with me, I apparently lit the match. 🙂 My contribution to the discussion was not inflammatory, and I even read my comment to a couple of people after the fact to see if I had somehow been more confrontational than I thought, and no one thought I had. This woman chose to make some inaccurate assumptions about me and rip me up because she didn’t like what I said. She merely DISAGREED with me but chose to go after me instead. She then promptly declared her participation in the discussion over because she had to go do “mommy stuff.” (I hope she washed her mouth out first.) 🙂
I think we as a country are coming unhinged with our inability to have intelligent civil discussions with each other. I think our current administration and the emboldened responses that the relative anonymity the internet provides are complicit in this. I think the tone of any organization is set by its leader, whether that be a family, a school, a business, or a country. When we have a Tweeter-in-Chief who never misses an opportunity to bully and insult someone, I guess others feel comfortable doing the same. And being able to “discuss” topics while sitting invisible behind a computer makes people more unpleasant than I hope they would be in real life situations. All I know for sure is that the moment we stop listening, start hurling insults and vulgarity, progress stops.
Specifically with regard to politics, the thing we need to remember is that every time there is a change in administration, half of us probably don’t like it. I think there might have been a bit of collective delusion during the Obama years. Look at us! We elected a black president! We’re not racist anymore! We legalized same sex marriage! Everyone is cool with it now! That just isn’t true. Just because your party happens to be in power for a time and you don’t pay attention to any dissension while stuff you like is happening doesn’t mean that everyone is happy. But that also doesn’t mean we can’t debate issues without acting like bullies.
I don’t think any of this bad behavior comes from lack of knowledge. I don’t know how anyone living in today’s world can be unaware of how we should behave. I think it is what a former boss of mine used to call a “heart” problem. Are we just rotten inside and that’s where all this meanness stems from?
Mister Rogers respected everyone just as they were and was a champion of everyone. I heard the film director Judd Apetow say of Mister Rogers, “He was the bar of how I would like to behave.” Is the problem that those of us who grew up watching Mister Rogers failed to internalize his message? Or did we fail to impart it to the next generation? Or, did we completely miss his mission, and that is that EACH of us was to become the Mister Rogers in our own corner of the world? I think that may be it.
If we could all just stop screaming at each other long enough to listen and find the value in what each other has to say, might some of the ugliness in the world be abated? Mister Rogers thought so. He was a pioneer in children’s television and fearless in his pursuit to convince each of us that we were valuable. And not in the helicopter parent “you’re-a-special-little-snowflake-everyone-deserves-a-trophy-you-can-do-no-wrong” kind of way that is so pervasive today. That stuff just isn’t true. But rather, as in a genuine and intentional interest in searching for what makes us each unique and valuable, and respecting our differences. And celebrating the courage it takes to be ourselves. Yo Yo Ma’s son Nicholas said of Mister Rogers, “It’s tough to make bravery both ordinary and special at the same time. That’s what he did.”
Not to oversimplify, because the subtleties of what Mister Rogers did with his show are many, but I think the core of his values and approach are found in a song he often sang on his show called “It’s You I Like.”
It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair
But it’s you I like
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys
They’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like
Every part of you.
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself
It’s you I like.
If you didn’t grow up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or you did and would like your children to know him too, there are many episode collections available. You can start with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: It’s a Beautiful Day.
I think each of us should challenge ourselves to take up the mantle of Mister Rogers and work to be kinder, gentler, and committed to making it a beautiful day in our own neighborhood. 🙂 I know I’ve dropped that ball more than once and can definitely work on it. It won’t fix everything, but I like to think it sure would put us a lot closer than anything we’re doing now.
Do you have memories of Mister Rogers? I’d love to hear about them in the comment section. And I’d love for you to follow me on Pinterest!