Fred Rogers, the late host of PBS’ “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” whose life of goodness is profiled in a new feature film starring Tom Hanks, likely would be very sad these days. “Oh my,” he might say, “What has happened to ‘The Neighborhood?’”
All the indicators point to dysfunction. Increased anger, increased school and mass shootings, increased workplace conflict, increased negativity, increased addiction, increased depression and increased teen suicide. The Journal of Abnormal Psychology reported in March that between 2009 and 2017, depression in teens ages 14 to 17 increased more than 60%. In the same study, rates of suicidal thoughts among young people increased significantly and in some age groups more than doubled. The dramatic data was based on a survey of 600,000 people by the U.S. Department of Health.
Years ago, one of the country’s top high school principals told me that young people’s dysfunction mirrors the troubles of adult society. Using his words, “Young people suck up adults’ problems and examples like a sponge.” This observation makes Mr. Rogers’ ethos even more valuable in that he showed and explained the larger society to children.
Simply put, Mr. Rogers said that there are positive ways for us (and children) to deal with our feelings without hurting ourselves or others. That was before social media and, especially, before Twitter. Now hurting and humiliating others have become accepted social behavior.
Congressman Denny Heck (D-WA) recently said on Meet the Press that “Success seems to be measured by how many Twitter followers one has, which are largely gained by saying increasingly outrageous things, the more personal the better.” Even former Vice President Joe Biden, who generally is portrayed as a civil and very decent man, got into the fray at a recent campaign appearance by calling a man “a damn liar” for alleging that he and his son Hunter were corrupt, even challenging the man to a showdown of pushups to demonstrate how strong he (Biden) is. In his Neighborhood, Mr. Rogers no doubt would have found a gentler way to deal with lies, misinformation or interpersonal challenges.
Mr. Rogers introduced a Neighborhood of make-believe to children. In the world of make- believe, he could deal with important and difficult subjects in a safe way. Children — and I can attest, my own children — got it and transferred the parable to their real worlds.
Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was one that was based on core values. Reducing his values to one four-letter word, I can say that his Neighborhood was about love: loving yourself and loving others. It was okay to be sad; it was okay to feel hurt; it was okay to fail and then try, try and try again. It was okay to forgive — yourself and others. It was okay not to be perfect. It was okay to be you. That was part of being human. Mr. Rogers validated our humanity. He accepted us, even if we weren’t perfect.
In the feature film “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Mr. Rogers (played by Tom Hanks) takes a negative, angry and sometimes violent (partially fictionalized) Esquire reporter who harbors resentment against his father for abandoning the family and helps him transform into a caring, concerned, kind and forgiving man. In the process, the reporter’s relationship with his estranged father is repaired, and a potentially destructive relationship with his own wife and son is prevented.
Mr. Rogers’ “secret sauce” was kindness. He modeled kindness on his show and in his life, and lots of fans (including the actual reporter) followed his lead. One reason why kindness works is that it has an effect on our physiology. It’s medically proven that performing kindness increases endorphins (happy hormones) in your brain. It also increases endorphins in the brains of those who witness acts of kindness. And kindness creates a chain reaction that keeps on going, person to person to person as they “pay it forward.”
Kindness is ultimately the antidote to societal meanness as it ripples outward to others. But only if the kindness is frequently reported or observed. Research from marriage therapy has shown that it takes five positive interactions (such as kindness) to reverse one negative interaction. So we need lots of kindness — we need kindness that is noticed and keeps on going because it’s reinforced by culture.
The magic of the Neighborhood of love and acceptance that Mr. Rogers created is that it modeled and effused a culture of kindness, caring, respect and gratitude. Like the characters on the show, the Neighborhood delivered these positive values over and over again.
Gratitude is not just a powerful emotion, it can be a conscious choice. Psychologists Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis and Dr. Michael McCullough of the University of Miami reported in a 2015 study that people who are grateful are happier and healthier. One top pediatrician “prescribes” an initial daily regimen to children who are depressed: to write down three things he or she is grateful for each day. According to the doctor, this method has improved wellness and reduced prescription meds dramatically.
When a Neighborhood exudes love, caring, acceptance, kindness, gratitude and sensitivity, it fosters high functioning, positive, happy people. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview students in a suburban middle school who had gone through an all-day Project Love Power of Kindness workshop with 60 of their peers. One 6th-grader said that he had been a mean kid, ridiculing and sometimes bullying others, but the Project Love experience made him look at himself and now he is kinder to others. He said that he and others are happier, and he is more appreciative of his school and friends. The workshop and teacher follow-ups created the culture and expectations in the school; he went along with the new paradigm, and the new actions and behaviors continue to reinforce the culture. Kindness creates an endless positivity loop.
Albert Einstein once said, “Out of clutter, find simplicity.” Kindness seems so simple, and it is. So was Mr. Rogers’ example, and that’s why he appealed and still appeals to so many.
Mr. Rogers’ message is a foil to the clutter of meanness and disrespect that has prompted the negative trends we see in our current-day Neighborhood. Many people are no longer playing nice in the sandbox, and neither are many of their children.
We all would do well to get back to the basics of Mr. Rogers’ world view. Love your neighbor as yourself, be kind, say “I’m sorry,” smile, accept people and help them grow, be forgiving, see each day as a new chance to be happy, positive and kind. The daily opportunity for goodness is reflected in Mr. Rogers’ closing ditty on every show:
“It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive; it’s such a happy feeling you’re growing inside; and when you wake up ready to say ‘I’ll make a snappy new day.’ It’s a good feeling, a really good feeling ....”
For sure, a new day in a new decade is dawning. Will it be a happy day? Will we feel positive? Will we be mean or kind? Will we have hope in the future? Will we feel uplifted or diminished? Will we be snappy or crappy? These choices are in our hands. What kind of Neighborhood do we want?
Stuart Muszynski is President and CEO of Values-in-Action Foundation, an organization that teaches, promotes, and provides the skills and tools that enable individuals to make positive, values-based decisions every day. Its kindness- and character-focused initiatives, such as its Project Love® school programming, have reached 400,000 students in more than 1,500 schools in all 50 states. Values-in-Action’s upcoming Just Be Kind® campaign will specifically address our nation's values and empower students and adults to build communities of kindness, caring and respect. www.viafdn.org #justbekind