Won't You Be My Neighbor?
Before his death in 2003, Fred Rogers earned four Emmy Awards, 40 honorary degrees and the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work on the PBS children's television series "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," which aired from 1968 to 2001. And now he's the subject of a new documentary, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" Click through for 20 timeless examples of Mister Rogers' "deep and simple" message.
Lesson 1: Each One of Us Is Special and Unique
"Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" gave its young audience a shot of pure self-esteem. "You've made this day a special day, by just your being you," said Fred Rogers. "There's no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are."
Lesson 2: You're Never Wrong to Have Feelings
Fred Rogers taught us that expressing our feelings in ways that don't hurt others shows strength, not weakness. "There's no 'should' or 'should not' when it comes to having feelings," he said. "They're part of who we are. When we can believe that, we may find it easier to make constructive choices about what to do with those feelings."
Lesson 3: Love Is Sacred
"I believe that appreciation is a holy thing," said Mister Rogers, who was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1963 but never sounded preachy. "So, in loving and appreciating our neighbor, we're participating in something truly sacred…The connections we make in the course of a life—maybe that's what heaven is."
Lesson 4: Use Your Imagination
In the Land of Make Believe—with puppets like Prince Tuesday and Henrietta Pussycat—Mister Rogers encouraged imagination and play. But beneath the play was the deeper message: "It's our insides that make us who we are, that allow us to dream and wonder and feel for others."
Lesson 5: Stay Positive
Far from being a "boob tube," TV for Mr Rogers was full of possibilities to entertain, uplift and nourish children—and adults: "Television needs to do all it can to show and tell what the good in life is all about.... We all have only one life to live on earth. And through television, we have the choice of encouraging others to demean this life or to cherish it in creative, imaginative ways."
Lesson 6: "Look for the Helpers"
"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world."
Lesson 7: There's a Very Simple Key to Success
What we saw on television was exactly who Mister Rogers was, and by his own definition, he was a luminous success. "There are three ways to ultimate success," he explained. "The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind."
Lesson 8: Listen
Mister Rogers reminded us that we don't have to solve someone's problems to be a supportive friend or neighbor: "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."
Lesson 9: Don't Avoid Difficult Subjects
He tackled subjects like death, divorce and disability with honesty and compassion. "It is only natural that we and our child find many things hard to talk about," said Mister Rogers. "But anything human is mentionable and anything mentionable can be manageable. The mentioning can be difficult, and the managing too, but both can be done if we're surrounded by love and trust."
Lesson 10: You Don't Have to Be Perfect
"Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like 'struggle.' To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now." Mister Rogers acknowledged that human beings are flawed: "People can love us, even when we're not perfect."
Lesson 11: There's More to Life Than Coming in First
"Deep down, we know that what matters in this life is much more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too, even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then."
Lesson 12: Embrace Growth and Change
Despite his gentle manner, Mister Rogers never promised a life free of pain: "Growing means when you're a baby and you're angry, all you can do is scream and kick. That's all. But when you get a little older, you can say that you're angry. You can stomp around and make up a dance, or pound some clay and make things out of clay, and sing a song or write a poem. That's what it means to grow. I'm proud of the way you're growing and changing."
Lesson 13: Imagine
Being able to envision an empty milk carton as an apartment house, or an oats box as a tunnel, is even better than owning a new toy, Mister Rogers said. "You know, if you had all the toys in the world and you didn't have any imagination about how you would play with them, those toys would just sit there doing nothing. And that would be no fun. Thinking up good things to do with what you have gives everybody a good feeling."
Lesson 14: The Things That Frighten You Aren't Really That Scary
Mister Rogers, whose college degree was in Music Composition, wrote most of the music performed on his show. And he realized that kids can be as terrified of a bathroom drain as of death or divorce, as reflected in this song: "You can never go down / Can never go down / Can never go down the drain / You're bigger than the water / You're bigger than the soap / You're bigger than all the bubbles / And bigger than your telescope; so you see... You can never go down the bathroom drain"
Lesson 15: Take the Time to Do a Good Job
"Anything worthwhile certainly takes a while," said Mister Rogers, who got that message across in another song: "I like to take my time / I mean that when I want to do a thing / I like to take my time to get it right / I mean I just might make mistakes / If I should have to hurry up / And so I like to take my time..."
Lesson 16: There's Another Kind of Superhero
"When I was very young, most of my childhood heroes wore capes, flew through the air or picked up buildings with one arm. They were spectacular and got a lot of attention. But as I grew, my heroes changed, so that now I can honestly say that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me." Which is exactly why Fred Rogers remains a hero to so many.
Lesson 17: Don't Let Differences Divide People
Fred Rogers cast Francois Clemmons, one of the first African-Americans on children's TV, as a neighborhood policeman. In 1969, against the backdrop of American racial turmoil, Mister Rogers invited Officer Clemmons to join him in a wading pool, a striking illustration of integration and friendship. As they soaked their feet, Mister Rogers sang: "There are many ways to say I love you / There are many ways to say I care about you..."
Lesson 18: Teach a Child to Love Books
"You know you don't have to be an actor when you read a book to a child. All you need is to simply love what you're reading. Even just enjoying the pictures together is a great start. When you share a book with a child, you're saying to them that books are important. That's a gift that can nurture them all through their lives."
Lesson 19: Don't Forget What Really Matters
"It's not so much what we have in this life that matters. It's what we do with what we have. The alphabet is fine, but it's what we do with it that matters the most. Making words like 'friend' and 'love.' That's what really matters."
We will be your friend, Mister Rogers! We will be your neighbor! We like the way you think, and the comforting way you make hard truths palatable and gentle truths gleam.
Lesson 20: Be Yourself
"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."
That's why children loved Fred Rogers, as did their parents. Calm and gentle, patient and friendly, heartfelt and genuine inside and out, he remains an inspiration even today. One of his classic red cardigan sweaters (knitted by his mother) is now in the Smithsonian's permanent collection. And no less permanent is his message: "I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex."
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