What I Learned from Mr. Rogers

Whatever happened to civility?

Posted Feb 18, 2020

Mr. Rogers taught me how to parent my children. He made me interpret their behavior and think about the feelings and impulses behind it, long before I ventured into therapy in order to understand my own. He taught me to ponder what they might be thinking when I lost my temper, said things I shouldn't have, or set a bad example—sometimes too late, but usually, with his good counsel, reparable. 

He taught me how to project myself into their heads, look and listen from their perspective, understand their fears (especially about flushing toilets), and realize that, even when I knew I didn't mean it the time I told them if they didn't stop squabbling I was leaving and never coming back, they didn't. I credit Fred Rogers for teaching me that emotional intelligence is a skill that's more important than phonics, and every parent needs to cultivate and teach it to their children.

Mr. Rogers was the wise, patient, present father I was never able to give them, and I was a better mother because of him. When they were very small, we watched him together, and sometimes we talked about what we'd learned.

Once they started elementary school, they ignored, mocked, and even parodied him; to this day, whenever I commit what they call "Fredspeak"—offer a gentle reminder to be more thoughtful, patient or understanding, like when they're raging about their own kids' rudeness, thoughtlessness, or intransigence—they hum the opening bars of his theme song and laugh. Even so, I persevere.

When their children were small and came to visit, we watched Mr. Rogers together. And when I heard my daughter tell her young daughter something right out of the Fred Rogers canon about how you had to respect old people like her grandmother, even if you'd rather watch "RuPaul's Drag Race," I laughed out loud, and almost in unison, the three of us began humming the opening bars of the familiar theme song.

I prepared for raising my first child the way I prepared for my college exams—a lot of last-minute cramming. I tucked Dr. Spock in my suitcase when I went into labor and opened it for the first time when I realized that unless you tell the pediatrician's receptionist that your baby's fever is over 104 and he's acting listless, he doesn't call you back until the end of the day; baby diarrhea doesn't rate, especially when that same receptionist tells you to read Spock rather than waste valuable time the doctor could be spending with truly sick children.

There are and were plenty of experts who've written plenty of books about how to raise healthy, happy children. But the kinds of things Mr. Rogers taught before the advent of professional parenting weren't thoughtfully and accessibly explicated in most of those books. And even if they had been, I was too exhausted at the end of, say, a week when preschool was closed, and it rained every single day, and my toddlers had chickenpox to care. Back then, I also had a gendered idea that many of what I thought of as capital-letter concepts, like Loyalty, Honor, and Respect, were things fathers were supposed to teach kids, and mine didn't have one to either embody or explain them.

But Fred Rogers did. He was worth a hundred Dr. Spocks, and as I watched the TV documentary about him recently, I remembered how much I owed him. I'm not the only one. In the pocket park at the end of my street this week, two people sharing a bench who appeared to be strangers were talking about current events, a discussion that quickly escalated into an exchange of insults and invective.

As their voices and tempers rose, a white-haired woman on another bench who was enjoying the unaccustomed sunshine while feeding treats to her dog began singing, "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood" in a high, sweet voice. Embarrassed, the two men stopped talking, lowered their heads in a gesture of apology, and left the park. As politics gave way, for once, to harmony, I missed Mr. Rogers even more.