“When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.” ~ Fred Rogers
“Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education: they grow there, firm as weeds among stones.” ~ Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
There is a saying that you can tell a lot about a society by the way they treat animals. I contend that you can also tell a lot about a society by the way they treat children. I’ve been thinking a great deal about children lately and the way we’ve been treating them.
Last weekend my husband and I went to see the documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? about Fred Rogers and his PBS children’s show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers’ approach to dealing with children was so loving and kind. It’s the way we should be treating all the children we come into contact with, even if their parents came into this country illegally.
Mr. Rogers was an ordained minister who used television to help children feel like they were heard, seen, and appreciated. He also used the show to help young children deal with things that most adults have trouble dealing with as well. Things like death, divorce, tragic events, being bullied, and even social issues that might impact them. No topic was off limits for Mr. Rogers. During the Civil Rights movement when people were having black children removed from public swimming pools for no other reason than they had a different skin color, Mr. Rogers invited the neighborhood police officer, who happened to be black, to join him in cooling off his feet with him in a little wading pool. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then Robert Kennedy were assassinated, he did a show about what the word assassination meant. He did shows about divorce, disabilities, and so much more. He always ended his show by telling the children that he liked them just the way they were. He meant it and they knew it.
Even though many parents and children loved him because of who he was and how he treated them, he had his detractors too. Some journalists, or psychologists, or politicians said that because of Mr. Rogers’ show, a whole generation of children were growing up entitled and narcissistic because he told them they were special. Not everyone is special, they reasoned, and we shouldn’t tell them they are.
I don’t understand the human predilection for blaming the wrong people when bad things happen.
The argument that Mr. Rogers was to blame for the failure of parents to love their children, reminds me of the parents who would say to me, “I want you to fix my child.” I had a whole raft of thoughts going on in my head that I was too nice, or unable to say because of school policy; things like, “I teach five classes a day with 25 to 30 students in each class, and you want me to fix your child? And I see your teenager five hours a week. How many hours do you see your child in a week? If you want them ‘fixed’, you’ll have to change your own behavior. I’ll try to help them deal with the bleep you put them through, but you need to take a good look at how you’re interacting with them if you want them ‘fixed’.” I tried to help teens deal with the things they were concerned about, but I wasn’t always successful. I made mistakes, and I couldn’t reach every student.
In the same vein, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was on for one hour every weekday, that’s five hours a week. Yet people were blaming him if their children didn’t turn out the way they thought they should? Who’s the narcissist blaming others for their own mistakes?
And then, this week, I discovered that my favorite version of Jane Eyre is on Amazon Prime Video. As I watched the first segment, I remember how I felt when I read the book in high school. I was so angry with Jane’s aunt. She treated Jane horribly and encouraged her children to do the same thing. Here was Jane, an orphan being blamed for all sorts of wickedness that, of course, she was not responsible for. Her aunt hated her so much that she sent her to a horrible school for girls, which was more like a prison. The girls were not fed properly, didn’t have proper heat, or warm clothes, and they got punished often for tiny little infractions that really didn’t matter at all. I just didn’t get that? And we’re still doing similar things to children today.
Most people claim they want children, then some treat them abominably when they begin to walk, talk, and think for themselves. You hear parents in the grocery stores, or at the soccer field, or in restaurants yelling at their children for all kinds of trivial things. Heaven forbid a child should have their own feelings. This kind of abuse leads some, when they get to be adults, to have a difficult time relating out in the world and we wonder why.
While I wrote all of that, I was thinking of all the years I worked with young children. I started before I was out of high school, teaching Bible School classes and graduated to being an aide in Montessori Schools, child development and day care centers. In the mid to late 1980s, I was a teacher in one of the four year old classrooms at the child development center sponsored by my congregation. For the most part it was fun creating the projects and choosing the books to read to the children. But sometimes I encountered a child with severe problems. I had one little boy who would get extremely angry, throw chairs and other things around the room, and hurt the other children. The director and I didn’t really know what was going on. We informed the parents of the boy’s behavior and asked the other staff to keep watch. One day one of the teachers found the boy in the bathroom with another boy doing things that little four year old boys should not know anything about. That’s when we got a clue that this little boy had been sexually abused. We called in the parents and told them our suspicions. They had emigrated from one of the war torn African countries to avoid such things and were appalled. They began an investigation and discovered that the abuser was their baby sitter, a woman who had been recommended by their pastor. If I remember correctly, it was discovered this was not the first time the woman had done this. She was arrested and I think convicted of child abuse. And the parents had to send their beautiful little boy for counseling. He got better, but oh my, what a heartbreaking situation that family had already suffered just to get here and then to have that happen. I sometimes think of that little boy, who is now a man, and wonder if he healed from that traumatic time in his life. I hope he did.
That little boy makes me wonder what will happen to the children who were recently ripped from their parents arms and locked away. Will they be able to heal after they are reunited with their parents? I hope so, but I feel terrible what happened to them in my country.
In my opinion, children are our most precious gifts. Fred Rogers knew that and tried to make the lives of children easier. He tried to help them process their feelings and understand the world a little better. We need more people like Mr. Rogers in the world.
I encourage you to go see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Mr. Rogers was the perfect example of the meek, gentle person, who is dismissed and sometimes ridiculed by more outgoing types, but nevertheless changes the world. If you’re sensitive like me, you might want to take plenty of tissues when you go see the movie.
Thanks for reading, commenting, and liking. I appreciate it.
Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2018
Lucinda is the author of The Space Between Time, an award finalist in the “Fiction: Fantasy” category of the 2017 Best Book Awards. It’s a historical, time-travel, magical realism, women’s novel, and is available in all ebook formats at Smashwords, or you can find the ebook at iBooks or Barnes and Noble. If you prefer a physical copy, you can find a print-on-demand version at Amazon. To join her email list, click here. She will never sell the names on her list.