I have vivid memories of his show, his voice, the “ding, ding” of trolley. I remember sitting on the carpet in my childhood home, cross-legged in front of the television, soaking in every word he so gently shared. I still remember most of the words to the opening theme.
I grew up watching Mr. Rogers, so when the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor came out, I was excited to watch it. I finally did just a few months ago, sitting on an eight-hour flight to spend Christmas with my family. I’ve become a weepy person apparently, because I had to keep turning my head to look out the window for a moment, hiding my quiet tears from my neighbor and collecting myself from outright ugly crying on that plane full of strangers.
I believe that Mister Rogers was a kind of saint. I really do. Saint Nicholas takes the role as patron saint of children, but perhaps Mister Rogers can be the patron saint of childhood. Because that’s really what he championed. Adults responded to him too, and they responded to him when he spoke to them like children. That’s because he spoke to children like they should be spoken to. He didn’t patronize, he didn’t baby, he didn’t oversimplify. He appealed to the childhood that lives in each of us, regardless of age. He spoke with clarity, with compassion, and with so much love it was tangible in his voice.
Adults responded to Mr. Rogers because getting older doesn’t diminish anyone’s need for that kind of love and tenderness. Children responded to him because he honored their childhood instead of trying to push them through it as quickly as possible.
I work with children, and therefore have many children who are very dear to my heart. And as someone who has a lot of children close to my heart, I found even deeper meaning and importance in Mister Rogers’ philosophies. If I could boil down the message of Mister Rogers to one of his quotes, it would be this: “Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.”
That’s it. That’s the message. And it’s one of the most important ones I can think of.
This, I think, is not often the message believe about ourselves. It is often not the message we pass on to our children. This is the truth I want the kids I work with to know–that they are loved just as they are and they don’t have to change anything about themselves for that love–but though I believe that in my head and heart, I think I’ve done a pretty bad job at communicating that to them. I get so caught up in what I want them not to do (swear at each other, beat up the kids they don’t like, breaking things from carelessness or misuse) that I forget to really think and communicate about what it is I want them to do.
I want them to love themselves in a healthy way. I want them to love others regardless of what those others have done in the past. I want them to want peace and love and kindness in their community. And I want them to know that they are loved, even if they can’t do those things yet.
Where then is the motivation to change? We all need to grow, and mature, and improve ourselves in some way. If we’re not doing it to make ourselves more valuable, more special, more worthy of being loved, then why bother?
This is what I want to tell my kids: the reason we try to change as people is because we all have the power to change the world. We can change the world around us for good, and we can change it for bad. We all have the responsibility to make good changes in ourselves so we can make the world around us more beautiful. And where do we get the power and the motivation to change ourselves? Of course, the answer is love.
Sometimes I feel like kids are testing me, trying to see how far they can push me until I don’t love them anymore. I can tell when they realize that they can’t push me far enough, that I will still continue to love them. Funny enough, their behavior improves dramatically.
Of course, I fail all of the time. Sometimes my words or my tone become harsh. Sometimes I lose my patience. Sometimes I don’t have the right words to say, and I say all of the wrong ones. And it’s easy to feel down on myself. I’m trying to change the world around me for good, but what if I’m not succeeding in that? What if I’m not good enough?
But then I remember Mister Rogers, and how his words were not just for children, but for all of us. I remember that I, too, am loved just as I am. And I have faith that that love is turning me into a healthier and better person. After all of these years, I’m still soaking in those words.
Jenna Griffin loves foreign music, old cookbooks, public transportation, and sunsets in new places. After graduating with degrees in writing and French, she is spending her first post-grad year as an English teaching assistant in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France.