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The unconventional children’s television pioneer celebrated dignity and kindness in the age of mass media.
Kids have it really hard right now. Many adults have forgotten that a world where children are safe and cared for with dignity is not a utopian vision, but a necessity.
Take Ben, for example, who happened to be sitting in my office recently. I told him about a paid internship opportunity for high school youth at a local nonviolence organization, wondering if he would be interested in pursuing it. But he liked violence, he asserted, with a certain confidence, a wry smile on his face and a mesh of hair falling across his serious brown eyes.
“I’m not very peaceful.”
“That could make you the ideal candidate,” I replied. “You might actually have the courage it takes to practice nonviolence.”
Ben is 17 and had been expelled from school a few days before because he’d threatened, not for the first time, to fight another student. “Just go,” responded the school administrator. It was the end of the school year and they were kicking him out for the rest of the year. That evening the other kid sent him threats on Snapchat, ready to pick up the fight now that they were off campus.
“But I swallowed my pride and talked him out of it. I told him I didn’t want to fight him,” said Ben. He went back to his school administrators to tell them that he and the other guy were “cool now” and there wouldn’t be any more trouble, but to no avail. They wouldn’t revoke the expulsion. He was not worth their while—he was not worthwhile. “I have one friend who really understands this, too,” he told me quietly later in our conversation. “Nothing matters. Life really doesn’t matter.”
Something in what he’d said caught my attention. And it wasn’t his violence.
“Wait, you mean, you figured out how to reconcile with this other kid even though a few hours before the two of you were ready to take each other on? You sound like someone who’s done this before.”
And sure enough, he told me about another time when he’d not only broken up a fight between two friends, but helped them forgive each other and even reconcile.
“Ben, I’m gonna make a wild guess that you might have a real gift for peacemaking.” He became attentive now: Maybe no one had ever seen him in this light—or said so. He’d been typed as a “bad” kid, aggressive, violent; he picks a fight and is punished, but he reconciles a conflict and no one cares.
Ben was not failing school, or society. They—or rather, we—were failing him. One administrator actually told him, “You’re going to end up dead or in prison.”
“It makes me want to prove him right,” Ben said, almost imploringly.
His story made me wonder:
What are we telling ourselves, and our children, about what it means to be a human being? Are we problems or are we problem-solvers? It depends on what qualities we are trained to look for.
The day before my conversation with Ben, I saw the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Morgan Neville’s appropriately complex exploration of the unconventional children’s television pioneer Fred McFeely Rogers. The messages we send to the very young were of primary concern to Rogers, who chose a career in television—in the early days of the medium—expressly to care for children. As the originator and host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Rogers celebrated dignity and kindness in a slow-paced, low-budget children’s show that was a beloved cultural institution for just over three decades.
Giving his full attention to everyone and everything that came into his neighborhood, especially the challenges, Mister Rogers took up serious conversations normally censored from children, going right to the heart of the toughest problems the world faces: war, racism, assassination, even terrorism. He reminded us of our responsibility to look at how to understand and repair these conflicts, because—and this is the important part—all of us have the capacity to do that work.
In an interview included in the film, Rogers says that in times of “scary news,” of tragedy and disaster, his mother taught him not to focus just on destruction or violence, but to “look for the helpers,” who are everywhere. Rogers often said that he admired Mahatma Gandhi, another unassuming person with an extraordinary capacity for separating negative behaviors from the fundamental dignity of the person doing them, and then using that relationship as a basis for constructive action. Gandhi coined a special term for nonviolence that takes it out of the conceptual realm of passivity, satyagraha. Satya means what is good, what is real, what is true, and agraha means to grasp, to hold tightly.
With his inner strength hidden behind his homemade sweaters and signature blue tennis shoes, Mister Rogers modeled satyagraha in the age of mass media. Look at his boldness, how he taught children to resist mindless indignity: giving lessons on how to turn off a television set—his very own medium—when what is shown is degrading.
Giving back agency to the dehumanized mass viewer? That’s subversive. Firmly taking his industry colleagues to task for producing media that was harmful to the development of children? Courage with a capital C.
Rogers’ influence was such that he was often invited to give commencement speeches to college graduates who grew up with his show. “As human beings,” he exhorted in one of these, “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 is not an easy task when we’re exposed to anywhere between 500 and 10,000 brand messages a day telling us the exact opposite.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? offers a scene from the television show: The year is 1969. Officer Clemmons and Mister Rogers sit next to a wading pool, dipping their feet together for a friendly respite from the day’s heat. Officer Clemmons is Black and Mister Rogers is White. The film now flashes to news footage of a White man pouring chemicals into a swimming pool where Black and White youth are swimming as an act of nonviolent civil disobedience to segregation and the violent “Whites Only” sign on the wall. Cut back to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, where Rogers takes a towel and carefully dries Officer Clemmons’ feet. What do we see? Two people, profoundly caring about each other, as well as the other people in their neighborhood and world around them. “Pay attention to our message,” they quietly urge through their actions.
In early childhood education, as in nonviolence for that matter, there are two key principles: to dignify the child/person and model the behavior you want others to emulate. Like a master teacher, Rogers invites us into this struggle with him, imperfect as we may be now. “It’s You I Like” is the famous song he would sing to children (though we know that some grown-ups were listening, too). If we don’t love people the way they are, he would say, they can never grow. And if we don’t turn off and resist the degrading images of ourselves from commercial media, how can we love? How can we grow?
This is timeless wisdom that Rogers lived, and the challenge of a lifetime: to refuse the degradation that turns us into consumers, offer people dignity even while resisting their behavior, and, above all, love them as they are right now.