“Hi, Neighbor.” If you’d forgotten the smiling face and gentle voice of the man who offered this greeting daily after he donned his signature cardigan and sneakers, recent reminders have cropped up everywhere. Fred Rogers, who died in 2003, made a posthumous comeback in this year’s popular documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?…the recently released biography, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers…and the upcoming movie, You Are My Friend, which stars Tom Hanks and will hit theaters in October 2019.
Why Fred Rogers, and why now? Well, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Presbyterian minister’s children’s show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which aired from 1968 to 2001. But this is about so much more than an anniversary. It’s about a legacy that only continues to grow and resonate with people of all ages. If you consider the eerie similarities of then and now, it’s easy to see why. In 1968, political and racial tensions were at an all-time high. Assassinations, riots and terror attacks were happening both at home and internationally. Friends and family were at odds over everything from the Vietnam War to rock music. Then, as now, Fred Rogers modeled the best in all of us and reminded everyone of the good and positive in life. At the root of all his lessons is one simple, guiding principle—always be kind, or as he would put it, “Be a good neighbor.” Here are five more gems for grown-ups from Mister Rogers…
LESSON 1: LIKE YOURSELF
Mister Rogers said: “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self.”
Fred Rogers instructed each of us to conduct our lives in our own unique way and also in a way that works harmoniously alongside others. He told children in every episode, “I like you just the way you are.” The not-so-hidden message: You need to like yourself, too. In one episode, he illustrated this message by drawing a hasty picture with crayons and holding it up for his pint-size audience, saying, “I’m not very good at it, but it doesn’t matter. It feels good to have made something.” If you love and accept yourself along with your imperfections, you’ll be kind to yourself. Both self-acceptance and kindness give you a strong foundation for confidence and compassion, which makes it much easier to be kind to other people.
LESSON 2: TALK ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS
Mister Rogers said: “People have said, ‘Don’t cry,’ to other people for years and years, and all it has ever meant is, ‘I’m too uncomfortable when you show your feelings.’ I’d rather have them say, ‘Go ahead and cry. I’m here to be with you.’”
Fred Rogers didn’t minimize problems. He acknowledged that there are times when everything isn’t fine—that it’s OK to be sad, scared or hurt. That acknowledgment gives others a safe space to talk through their feelings, whether it’s about something personal—a divorce, illness—or professional, such as upheaval at work. Change is scary and often painful, even when it’s not something big and personal such as a divorce or illness. Regardless of the setting, it’s important to be patient with others. Listen and let them talk through their feelings without passing judgment. This helps people find acceptance about what is happening inside themselves.
LESSON 3: HAVE FAITH IN HUMANITY
Mister Rogers said: “One of the greatest dignities of humankind is that each successive generation is invested in the welfare of each new generation.”
Rogers was the master of framing life in realistic but still positive and constructive terms. He was fond of sharing what his mother said whenever he saw scary things on the news. “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” As adults, we are wise to remember this when we see a heart-breaking school shooting or natural disaster. Focusing on the first responders and Good Samaritans who step up in the face of tragedy reminds us that there are caring people in the world and helps restore our faith in humanity.
Recently in my community there was a major fire at a beloved school. At first, everyone at the scene was filled with anger, sadness and frustration that this could happen. Then some of the parents began to create thank-you posters for all the different fire companies that responded to show the community’s gratitude. They were able to channel those negative emotions into something positive.
LESSON 4: CONTROL WHAT YOU CAN—YOU
Mister Rogers said: “In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”
At a time when it seems like there are all kinds of madness in the world, the one thing everyone can do is stay calm and in control of himself/herself. Say you’re late and stuck in highway traffic and someone flies by on the shoulder. The natural reaction is to get angry, and that’s OK—denying what happened is not the answer. Instead, Fred Rogers would suggest that you keep control by imagining what valid reasons a person might have for doing that. Perhaps the woman in the passenger seat needed to get to the hospital. That reframing of the situation makes you see the behavior as acceptable. Instead of blood flowing to the emotional part of your brain, you’ve rerouted it to the thinking part and calmed yourself down in the process.
LESSON 5: GET YOUR POINT ACROSS WITH RESPECT
Mister Rogers said: “Love and trust, in the space between what’s said and what’s heard in our life, can make all the difference in this world.”
Fred Rogers helped people find the desire within themselves to be better. For example, if a doctor admonishes someone with a heart problem to stop smoking and exercise more to increase his odds of living longer, the patient may feel offended and often won’t take the advice. But if the doctor says, “If you stop smoking and exercise more, you’ll be able to play with your grandchildren longer without becoming short of breath and needing to rest,” the patient will be more likely to want to change his unhealthy behavior. The doctor phrasing the request like this appeals to the patient’s love of his grandchildren and comes off as less judgmental and more supportive.
Whenever it comes to a sticky or polarizing issue, if you challenge someone aggressively, that person is going to feel even more strongly about his own opinion, even if it is wrong, because emotions override the facts. Instead, Rogers believed that by discussing differences of opinion in a respectful way, people can get to a better place together. If you get your point across in a civil, diplomatic way, you can change the chemistry in the room and bring everyone to a level of common human understanding and decency.