Christmas is upon us and with it, the desire to create wonder and magic for our children, just like Mister Rogers. During my first few years as a parent, I often felt overwhelmed with all the holidays. The recent Mister Rogers biopic “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” provides well-timed reminders about what children (and all of us!) need, during the holidays and every day.
Mister Rogers Neighborhood first aired in 1962, before there was Sesame Street or even PBS. When it produced its last show in 2001, Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, had taught multiple generations of young children the importance of sharing hard feelings, and the power of being a neighbor.
In “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” actor Tom Hanks portrays Fred Rogers as he interacts with Esquire Magazine reporter, Lloyd Vogel, who is attempting to interview him. The genius of this film’s story is in how we see Mister Rogers through the eyes of the cynical Vogel looking for a “hero,” and instead witness a picture emerging of a significant life built around simple practices. Teaching and modeling these practices may be the best gift for our children this Christmas.
“You wanted to talk to me, I figured I should want to talk to you.” Mister Rogers addresses Vogel, a skeptical journalist, with all of his attention.
The wonders of Mister Rogers Neighborhood are, yes, in the make-believe, and the songs, and puppets, and the mystery of which neighbor will soon knock on the door… But, what set the show apart then and now, was Mister Rogers’ ability to talk in that living room and through the television to just one child.
He did not laugh or exploit children’s different understandings of the world. He took both their imaginations and their worries seriously. When we take our children seriously we emphasize their importance to us and the place they hold in our community, giving them the confidence to use their voice and also modeling for them how to honor others.
Tom Hanks and Matthew Rhys, who plays Lloyd Vogel, described filming scenes of dialogue in the movie as difficult and awkward. Mister Rogers had no trouble waiting for a child to speak and when the child was finished, he would wait some more. He never rushed conversations. He listened with all of the energy most of us reserve only for speaking. Our children need us to listen, with our silence and our body language. We must somehow, resist the urge to always finish sentences, advise, summarize, or teach. Let’s listen. And then listen some more.
During the holidays, we are tempted to over schedule. With so many opportunities for so many exciting events, we must work to remember that routines make our children feel safe and secure. How many times did we watch Mr. Rogers take off that suit jacket, put on the cardigan sweater, and then tie his sneakers? Surely, they could have fit more story into each episode, had they skipped this ordinary ritual? Except, routines order us in a world that is not predictable, as we experience feelings that make us feel lost.
Simple routines order chaos both internally and in our environment. Our children need us to establish routines in our homes and maintain them. Especially at Christmas, when inevitably, stimulation increases, simple routines around bedtime, meals, chores, and play provide comfort, stability, and even joy.
In one of my favorite sequences in the film, we see Mister Rogers praying for people by name, writing letters, swimming laps, and playing the piano. These are practices, disciplines, he engaged in daily. These activities grounded him. They kept him present and connected to God, his body, his relationships, the world around him. Vogel is struck by how much time Mister Rogers seems to spend absorbing the burdens of others. Yet, viewers witness someone who manages the stress and burdens of a busy schedule and countless relationships through daily practices.
A few years ago, feeling overwhelmed with the noise and chaos of the world, for the first time in a long time, I sat down at my piano. I will never be good or even polished. But in that season, I was so grateful for those eight years of lessons my parents gave me. I still had the ability to find resolution harmonically, when I couldn’t seem to hear it anywhere else.
What grounding practices are we gifting our children that two decades from now they can turn to for peace and wholeness? Are we modeling for them how working a difficult puzzle can occupy an anxious mind, shooting baskets can help alleviate pent up anger, and playing music can calm our hearts?
Mister Rogers was an ordinary man with a strong sense of calling and a commitment to a set of practices. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” reminds us of gifts our children actually need, not available on Amazon. In fact, Fred Rogers found much of his motivation in the early days of children’s television, in fighting the one-dimensional image of a child as a consumer. He built his show around teaching and modeling, not selling.
Mister Rogers’ gifts feel counter-cultural and just plain hard. But the good news is that each of these gifts is affordable. These gifts also have a much longer reach than the six months before most toys end up deposited at GoodWill. This Christmas, when we are overwhelmed by lists and costs and storage and frenzy, let’s remember the life of America’s Favorite Neighbor and give our children what they actually need.