For over 30 years, Fred Rogers invited viewers into his life by asking a simple question: "Won’t you be my neighbor?" His television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, quickly became one of the most popular shows for children and will forever be remembered as an iconic show that existed solely to teach the power of goodness. The show was low-budget and simple, utilizing sock puppets and hand-painted sets, but the messages taught were profound and full of purpose. In June 2018, a documentary titled, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” was released and reminded the world of lessons we still need to learn from Fred Rogers.
It All Starts in a Neighborhood
Throughout the years, the expression “it takes a village” remains true. By making a neighborhood the setting of the show, Fred Rogers emphasized the importance of our ‘villages,’ or neighborhoods, in our daily lives. On the show, the neighborhood cultivated a sense of safety and peace; as the neighbor with a consistent routine of changing out of his jacket and into his cardigan, Mr. Rogers’ presence was calming and a level of trust developed between him and the viewer.
Think about your own neighborhood- does it feel safe and peaceful? Do you know and trust your neighbors? Would your neighbors consider you kind and trustworthy? Are you contributing to the peace, safety, and feeling of community within your neighborhood? Take the time to get to know your neighbors- you can start with waving as they drive by or even following them on social media, but also try to make a genuine effort to actually know them. Ask where they are originally from, if they have other family in the area, and the names of their kids or pets; these simple pieces of information will allow you to cultivate stronger relationships as you continue to get to know them.
We must recognize the importance of our own role in society. Fred Rogers stated, “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘it’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’” We share the same world, so it makes sense that we would share the responsibility of making it a better place. By improving the relationships among our neighbors, we can improve our neighborhoods; through improved neighborhoods, we can improve society.
Children Need to Be Taught By Strong Examples and Soft Words
In each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Rogers had a mission: to teach his young viewers. After years of working with children, Rogers knew that children needed to be taught the simple things in life, such as how to whistle or tie a shoe, but also the difficult subjects in life, such as divorce and disabilities. Rogers utilized his show to carefully address each issue that children may encounter. Instead of shying away from topics that might be difficult to explain to children, Rogers took it upon himself to help children understand the issues that society was facing. When the U.S. was facing problems with segregation, specifically at swimming pools, Rogers invited Officer Clemons, the show’s neighborhood policeman who was African American, to wash his feet in the same pool where Rogers was washing his feet. This episode has become one of the most noteworthy, as it was an example of peace and acceptance in a time when society was lacking in both. Furthermore, Rogers was constantly bringing new ideas, people, and activities onto the show, providing an example of humility: you are never too old to learn and it’s always worth it to try something new, even if you aren’t good at it. In each new experience, from playing with gorillas to breakdancing, Rogers humbly observed, asked questions with utmost respect, and marveled at what he was learning.
It seemed that with each news story, Rogers found a way to teach the same news to children, explaining wars and what it meant that Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Rogers taught, “The world is not always a kind place. That’s something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it’s something they really need our help to understand.” Rogers knew that children would somehow be exposed to the evils of the world and he wanted to help them understand it in a meaningful way. Rogers delivered each message softly, gently, kindly, and with purpose; this style of addressing his audience created a sense of safety within the conversation and compelled listeners to truly focus and listen. Through this technique, he helped children better understand themselves and their emotions; in various episodes, he taught how to process fear, overcome feelings of inadequacy, and resolve conflicts peacefully, which Rogers claimed “is one of the greatest strengths we can give our children.”
Everyone Has Value
Fred Rogers communicated this message of value with the children who watched his show by singing the following words daily: “You always make each day a special day. You know how: by just your being you. There's only one person in the whole world that's like you, and that's you.” He wanted each child to know the value of their life and that someone cared about them. His words were carefully chosen to instill in viewers a sense of pride and ownership over who they were. Simply summarized, his message was that each person has real value and each life has true worth. According to Rogers, “The underlying message of the Neighborhood is that if somebody cares about you, it’s possible that you’ll care about others. ‘You are special, and so is your neighbor’ - that part is essential: that you’re not the only special person in the world. The person you happen to be with at the moment is loved, too.” When you understand the message and see each person as a person of worth, it changes the way you view them and the way you view yourself. Understanding your own value helps you understand the life you are meant to live- one full of love, kindness, and reaching your own potential. Likewise, understanding the value of each person helps you understand how to interact with them- with love, kindness, and encouragement- to interact with them as if they were your neighbor.
How can we show others their value? Start with the people you interact with daily, such as your neighbors. On Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the mailman and policeman were both recurring characters with whom Rogers developed friendships. Not only was he on a first-name basis with the neighborhood policeman and mailman, but he was a genuine friend to them; this was made evident in his meaningful conversations with them and when he invited them into his home. If you see the mailman pulling up to your mailbox, go outside and introduce yourself; remembering something as simple as someone’s name can go a long way in making them feel valued. If your neighborhood has block parties, invite the mailman- after all, the mailman may know each of the neighbors names better than you do! While neighbors are an easy place to start with developing such relationships, we should remember Rogers’ definition of a neighbor: whomever you happen to be with at the time. Think about people who you come into contact with regularly, such as the barista at your local Starbucks, the waiter at your favorite restaurant, or the crossing guard at your child’s school; make an effort to learn their name, always thank them, and leave the waiter a larger tip or bring the crossing guard lemonade.
The value that Rogers placed on each person was evident through his love, kindness, and respect, all of which were almost palpable at times. He had a deep understanding of the basic human condition: that each person wants to be known, accepted, and loved. Rogers was careful to remind everyone that this human condition never leaves us when he explained, “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.” Remind those around you that their being alive makes a difference in your life. Make eye contact. Smile. Show gratitude. Accept them as they are, for we are all in this human condition together.
The Keys to Success
The world will tell you a million things that will lead to success, but Rogers had a simple formula. He stated, “There are three ways to ultimate success. The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.” At the core of each episode he recorded, each lesson he taught, and each interaction he had, there was kindness. Kindness characterized his life and in his legacy, he challenges each of us to share that same kindness.
Rogers said, “Imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person.” Take 10 seconds to think about that. Imagine it. What would our neighborhoods be like? What would our society be like? What kind of world could we create for future generations? Through recognizing our shared responsibility to be kind and genuinely reach out to others, perhaps our society can become a little more like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.