If we all started our day like Fred Rogers did, can you imagine the possibilities?
Story by Kasey Jackson
Sometimes the world feels like a heavy place.
Threats of war. Fights over science. Racism. Sexism. Feuding politicians. Inequality. Enraged citizens. Lost children. Disease. Climate concerns. Bullying.
The list goes on and on.
While some experts report the world is actually better off than in any time in the past (according to Our World in Data, the world is better in terms of poverty, literacy, health, freedom and education), it can be hard to believe when television, radio and social media scream negative news on a constant basis. Many of us go to bed angry and wake up angry because we are inundated with negativity. We worry that if we talk about it, we might set off a heated debate with friends or family. People are being mean to one another. We’re saying things we know aren’t kind. It seems we need a reminder of how to treat one another.
Maybe it’s time to turn to an old friend: Mister Rogers.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that millions of people of all ages and backgrounds (mostly in the United States and Canada) remember something specific about the iconic television character Mister Rogers from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Red sweater. Blue shoes. Songs. Fish. Trolley. Puppets. Neighbors.
He took us on fabulous, curious adventures to learn how pretzels and crayons are made. He introduced us to musicians. We met his neighbor who wore lampshades on her head.
But what many of us remember most about Mister Rogers is the way he made us feel. He spoke directly to us, like a friend. He was gentle. Soft-spoken. Honest. Kind.
Would the world be a better place if it were made up of real people with qualities like the character Mister Rogers? Definitely. But people like this are few and far between, right?
Well, Fred Rogers was exactly like his character, according to those who knew him.
Inside the office of The Pittsburgh Foundation in May 2018, President and CEO Maxwell King shared stories he learned while serving as director of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College in Rogers’ hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and while researching and writing the biography, “The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers.” King explains that at his core, Rogers really did embody his character.
“Human kindness was probably the single most important thing to Fred Rogers,” King says. “People think of him as a television innovator, as an early childhood education expert, as a musician, as a scriptwriter, as a songwriter, as a performer, as a puppeteer. But what he cared about more than any of that is human kindness.
“You know how athletes or speakers will sometimes do a visioning exercise to think about what’s coming up and how they are going to play the game or do the speech or conduct the class they’re teaching? Fred Rogers would do that for the day he was about to enter into. But you know what he was doing it about? He was thinking about who he would see at work. Who he would see at lunch. Who he’d see at a meeting that afternoon. And how was he going to be prepared to be as thoughtful and kind as he could be? This is what he did. Because he really viewed his important role that he played in life as being an exemplar of human kindness.”
Rogers’ background in television, religion (he was a Presbyterian minister) and early childhood education studies gave him a unique perspective and the opportunity to reach millions of children to spread his message of love and kindness and acceptance. Every word of his messages was carefully chosen and crafted. He spoke into the camera, giving children the sense that he was their friend, their neighbor. Someone they could trust.
“I think there’s a part of us that doesn’t want to believe that he was real,” says Brad Montague. “That he maybe wasn’t as kind as he seemed. That he fought in wars. That he had a bunch of tattoos. Because we can’t wrap our heads around gentleness and kindness. But I think those are the boldest things you can do. I think he gave me as a child and is still giving me as a grown man an image of gentleness as boldness. He’s fiercely kind. Relentlessly kind. And that makes a dent.”
You likely wouldn’t recognize Brad Montague if he walked past you on the street. He might not be as popular as Fred Rogers — yet — but his work has quite a following. He’s the creator of Kid President, videos featuring that spunky kid who has given a pep talk to more than 40 million viewers (so far) on YouTube.
It’s September in Nashville, Tennessee, and Montague has just finished another Wonder Workshop, where he motivates, inspires and encourages people to “joyfully rebel against how things are to create the world as it should be.” Workshop attendees are lining up to personally thank him, pose for selfies, share project ideas. He spends more than 30 minutes chatting, smiling, laughing, offering advice. Giving hug after hug after hug. He spends time with every person in the line. He sits down for a few questions after he finishes, instantly apologetic that he took so long. When told it’s exactly what Fred Rogers was known to do with his fans — to give each and every one of them a moment to make them feel special — Montague sits back and looks at the ceiling. He pauses, smiles shyly and almost in a whisper says, “Thank you. Thank you.”
If you follow Montague’s work at all you’ll see he’s a big fan of Fred Rogers. He shares his quotes on social media and mentions him in his workshops. Montague works closely with young children. He gives them an opportunity to be heard. Much like Rogers did in work and in life. In fact, Montague has been called “the 21st century version of Mister Rogers.” It’s a comparison he calls a “massive compliment,” but also one he struggles with.
“There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.” — Fred Rogers
“I don’t think Fred would want there to be another Fred Rogers,” he says. “In the same way he wouldn’t want there to be another me. I think I take that as a compliment of the highest order because he embodies what it means to be a door opener and a helper, a guide. So when the Fred Rogers Center reached out and talked about how (our Kid President videos) show empathy and kindness, I thought ‘Well, maybe we are at least scratching the surface and attempting to be a fraction of what that show was to me as a child.’”
This year marked the 50th anniversary of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” There have been documentaries, King’s book and a movie with actor Tom Hanks playing the role of Rogers is in production. So, yes, it’s an anniversary celebration of one of the most popular children’s programs of all time. But why all the fuss about Fred Rogers? Why do so many people have such fond memories of him?
The answer could be science.
Brooke Jones is vice president of the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. She says science plays a role in how kindness, like that shown by Fred Rogers, affects our brains and our bodies.
“I call it the ‘trifecta’ effect,” she says. “We all know that when we commit an act of kindness or receive one, we feel good. There is an increase in oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine as well as a decrease in cortisol. But what most people don’t know is that the person who witnesses an act of kindness has the same physiological response in their body with the same increases and decreases in those chemicals. Oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine are ‘feel good’ chemicals that aid in lowering blood pressure, improving overall heart health and help us feel calmer and less depressed. Cortisol is the ‘stress’ hormone that has been found to decrease in the bloodstream when people regularly participate in kind acts.”
So if science proves kindness can make us feel better (in addition to being better), is there a way to learn how to be more kind? Can we change the emotional wellbeing of the world with kindness? Jones says “absolutely.” And in fact, that’s what staff at Random Acts of Kindness strive for every day with free kindness curriculum for students. Globally, the RAK curriculum reaches more than 2 million students a year.
“We know it can be taught,” she says. “One of the resources we offer is an evidence-based curriculum rooted in kindness. It has a full year of lesson plans covering concepts like compassion, respect, responsibility, integrity and gratitude. When we practice kindness and begin to embody it, we are naturally teaching others why it’s important.”
Montague has a similar, yet different, take on kindness and how we can affect one another’s lives.
“I think we remember when someone is kind because it jolts us into realizing who we are and who we are capable of being,” he says. “I interviewed a bunch of children and I asked them, ‘What can I do to be a better grownup?’ and overwhelmingly they want grownups to show up. They just want you to be there. Junlei Li at the Fred Rogers Center is doing the same research and finding just like Fred Rogers said, you don’t have to do anything spectacular, you just need to be there. Just you tying their shoe, looking them in the eyes, is the most important thing you could do — if you do that in love, as the caregiver to the child.”
Li is a senior fellow and former director of the Fred Rogers Center. He says that indeed, “what makes the ultimate difference in people’s resilience in the face of adversity is the presence of at least one caring, trusted and supportive person.” Like Montague says: Show up.
Li calls it the ‘at least one’ principle.
“Each of us needs ‘at least one’ person like that as we are growing up,” he says. “Each of us has the opportunity to be ‘at least one’ for someone else at some point of our lives.
“Fred Rogers has a classic quote about the ‘at least one’ idea: ‘Anyone who has ever been able to sustain good work has had at least one person — and often many — who have believed in him or her. We just don’t get to be competent human beings without a lot of different investments from others.’”
Call those others family, friends, your tribe or complete strangers with a do-good heart. They were all neighbors to Fred Rogers. You were his neighbor too.
“Fred created a rich model of what a neighborhood is like, and what each of us can do, with all of our own uniqueness, to be a neighbor to others — to honor and respect the uniqueness of our neighbors,” Li says. “His audience may have been children, but his message is for the entire world to hear.
“In the last public speech Fred gave, he said each and every one of us longs to know that there’s something about us that’s worth giving. By that he meant worth giving to our neighbors, our family, our community, our society. He felt that, ‘What if the greatest service we can offer to another human being, a neighbor or even a stranger, is to help that person know that he or she has something worth giving the world?’”
That’s Li’s philosophical answer to how we can be more caring and kind like Fred Rogers. His practical answer?
“I think (he wanted us) to look for helpers around us but in ourselves as well,” Li says. “In the most ordinary, mundane, simple everyday interactions and acts. That, I think, may be the one thing within reach for everybody.”
Learn how the Fred Rogers Center is working for and with children at fredrogerscenter.org.
Become a “Joy Rebel” at montagueworkshop.com.
Read more about “The Good Neighbor” at abramsbooks.com/goodneighbor.
Spread kindness with tips from randomactsofkindness.org.
Brad Montague photo by Caley Newberry.
Maxwell King photo by Matt Kryger.
Junlei Li photo by Anne M. O’Neill.
This story originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Kiwanis magazine.