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5 Things I Learned From “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

I recently took my kids to see the new documentary about Fred Rogers.  Here is what I took away from it. 

1. Words matter. 

Fred Rogers obsessed over the scripts of every episode of his show.  He famously had the writers rewrite and rewrite the dialog until it was perfect.  Why?  Because he knew how important it was to communicate to children in just the right way - a way that respected their intelligence and connected with their ability to understand the world around them.  We grow up hearing "actions speak louder than words," and while this is true, how we use our words matter.  In today's digital world, we throw our words around like used soda cans into a garbage bin, tossed out and never thought of again.  We need to start realizing that ugly comments on social media don't lack consequences but instead cultivate a toxic culture that we all have to live in.  It matters. 

2. Slow down and embrace silence.  

Have you watched an episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood lately?  The last time I did, I was struck by how slowly the show is paced.  I mean, slooooooow.  I realized that I was accustomed to other kids' shows which are full of whizzes, bangs, loud music, and fast-paced action.  Rogers hated these shows because he felt they were bad for a child's development, and he might have been right (one episode of the Power Rangers is enough to give me a migraine.)  The documentary points out that there were a lot of moments on his show where Rogers did something slowly and quietly on purpose.  Famously, he asked the television audience if they knew how long a minute was and then sat in complete silence for a full minute to show the kids the length of time.  With my iPhone, I never have to sit in silence again.   I can simultaneously be messaging a friend, listening to a podcast, and surfing Pinterest for recipes.  We aren't used to silence anymore, and it might even make us uncomfortable.  But the thing is silence is really important for our mental health, and studies show how a lack of quiet time can damage our brain function.  We need to bring back quiet time for ourselves and our kids.  

3.  There is no one way to be a "man."

The documentary addresses the sexuality of Fred Rogers; more specifically, a bunch of people suspected that he was gay.  Why?  Because he wasn't the typical man, whatever that means.  He wasn't a dude's dude.  He didn't do Crossfit or care about football.  Instead, he (gasp) wanted to talk about feelings - his feelings, your feelings, everyone's feelings.  He was gentle and soft-spoken.  While it doesn't matter if he was gay or not (he wasn't, for what it's worth), what does matter is that he showed kids that manhood doesn't look just one way.  Men can choose to not adhere to traditional "manliness" and still be men. 

4. You don't have to possess self-confidence to do great things. 

One thing I found surprising, was that years after creating his show, Rogers still felt insecure in his ability to create successful content.  Every time he sat down to write a new episode, he felt unsure of his ability to do so.  Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood ran for 895 episodes. Over 31 seasons, and yet, he was unsteady in his self-confidence.  I want to write books, and, ideally, get paid for doing so, and I haven't reached my goal yet.  Every time I sit down to write something, I feel a tug of self-doubt that I wish wasn't there.  A lot of us hold on to a personal goal that seems daunting because we lack the confidence to go for it.  We need to remember that Mr. Rogers was scared to tackle his goal too and yet still managed to do so at least 895 times.  If he can, we can. 

5.  We need to bring kindness back. 

It's no secret that Mr. Rogers was kind on his show.  What is less well known is that the kind and caring man on the screen wasn't just playing a character.  The real Fred Rogers was actually that kind.  He didn't just tolerate people who were different from him, he genuinely loved people who were different from him.  He meant it when he walked through that fake soundstage front door and said, "I like you just the way you are."  While watching the documentary, I had tears in my eyes the whole time, and when I looked around at the other adults in the room, I saw they did too.  I think I speak for all the crying adults in the theater that day when I say that our world has lost that loving feeling, and seeing a man who was so unabashedly and unapologetically kind made us realize how far we have fallen.  We need to bring back the kindness, folks. 

I highly recommend "Won't You Be My Neighbor?".  Go see it and "make a snappy new day!" 


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