We Should All Want to Be Neighbors With Mr. Rogers

COMMENTARY: We can access Google for a lot of fast answers, but it takes a long and sustained faith — faith full of trust, the kind possessed by Fred Rogers — to learn kindness and show it to others.

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The younger of my two sons has expressed his concerns to me about Google and the internet in general.

“When we were kids, and we wondered about something, we asked you and Dad. Now, kids don’t ask their parents anything; if they’re curious about something, they go to Google or You Tube. Or, even if they ask their parents a question, a lot of times the parents will say, ‘I don’t know. Google it,’ and the conversation, the exchange, the discussion — it all ends right there.”

He has probably hit on an important truth: How much has our comfort with technology and our dependence upon search engines affected our interpersonal exchanges? How have they narrowed our outreach to one another, rather than broadening it?

These are good questions and worth some study by specialists in social and family dynamics, but they remind me of a time when my older son’s curiosity could not always be assuaged by a turn at an internet browser, or even by “asking Mom,” and it caused him to reach out to a particularly distant (but paradoxically close and trusted) source: Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

The impactful life and career of Fred Rogers is the subject of Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a new documentary from Morgan Neville, which opened nationally in theaters June 8.

Twenty-five years ago, when shows like How It’s Made didn’t exist, Mr. Rogers would venture away from his neighborhood in order to visit an interesting shop or factory, and viewers might learn how bowling pins were set up or how graham crackers were made. One Sunday, my elder son wondered how chocolate-covered cherries were made. He was particularly curious about how the liquid got included in the process. It was one of those, “Hey, Mom, how does this happen?” questions and — since I hadn’t the first clue and Google hadn’t yet been invented — I gave him the only answer I had: “I don’t know! I wonder if Mr. Rogers has ever looked into that.”

My then-7-year-old, who had never missed an episode of Mr. Rogers, said, in his very logical way, “No, if he had, I’d already know the answer!” Then his face lit up. “Maybe if I write to him and ask him to visit a candy factory, we’ll find out!”

He did write to Mr. Rogers, and, in surprisingly short order — my memory says less than two weeks — my son received a typed letter from the man himself. Mr. Rogers thanked him for thinking of him and then praised my son for his curiosity. It was such a warm, friendly letter that it more than tempered my son’s disappointment to learn that his hero would, regretfully, not be visiting a candy factory for the Neighborhood audience, out of concern that it could encourage children “to eat more sweets than might be good for them.”

“I get what he’s saying, and it was really nice of him to write me back, because I didn’t really think he would,” my ever-rational son said, “but he could go to the factory and show us and then remind us that treats are meant to be treats and not for every day. I’d listen to that!”

He would have, too, I’m sure. No matter how many times I might have said it — and clearly he had heard me since he was repeating my phrasing back to me — coming from Mr. Rogers, the advice would have taken on a patina of wisdom that my words never possessed.

While my son first grooved on Mr. Rogers, I confess, I didn’t quite get it. Fred Rogers seemed a bit of a milquetoast to me — he was so soft-spoken; his manner was subdued; his sneakers were silent; he did such quiet and seemingly unremarkable things! And yet, every day, my little boy was captivated by the man. After watching with him a while, though, I understood.

Coming right on the heels of the furiously busy and loud Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers was refreshingly calm.

Mom yelled a bit and frequently got herself in an uproar over nothing; Mr. Rogers was unruffled and he never raised his voice.

My son’s own deep curiosity, creativity and musicality sometimes jumbled his own thinking; Mr. Rogers was creative and curious and musical, too, and he calmly demonstrated how to break down ideas and make them work.

Most importantly, in a world that is sometimes too mean to be borne, Mr. Rogers was kind. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he modeled Christ’s teachings without a pulpit and proved that those teachings still fascinate and inspire.

When people tell me that my elder son, now grown, is a gentleman and unusually kind, I am quick to credit his father, but interiorly I also give a nod to Mr. Rogers, who modeled kindness so well.

Mr. Rogers’ kindness was not reserved only for children either. Recovering from an illness in 2000, I was couch-bound and bored, flipping through television channels and grousing about daytime-programming, when I stumbled upon the Neighborhood and stayed there for the sake of sentiment and those long-gone days with my sons.

Mr. Rogers sang a song about bravery, and in my weakened state, he seemed to be singing it just to me — delivering the message I really needed to hear at exactly that moment — and then I understood completely how he had captivated my kids. We don’t always feel listened to; children especially do not. Mr. Rogers had a remarkable knack for making people feel understood, and completely accepted, no matter what.

The moment so moved me that I wrote Fred Rogers a letter of my own. I thanked him for his quiet outreach, his message of acceptance (“I like you just the way you are …”) and his stubborn sanity in an increasingly mad world. I thanked him for being there for my sons and for creating a show that would continue to serve all of us for decades to come.

And he wrote back, saying, “I’m grateful you and your husband have such good feelings about what your children experienced with us. It was also touching to know you feel that our Neighborhood messages helped you learn some things that have been meaningful in your life. We like to think our Neighborhood is for growing people of all ages, and we’re glad you do, too.”

We can access Google for a lot of fast answers, but it takes a long and sustained faith — faith full of trust — to learn kindness and show it to others. For that, we can still access Fred Rogers — a kind and gracious man; a model of quiet faith, well-lived; a hero. I have always wanted to be a neighbor, just like him.

Elizabeth Scalia is content editor at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.