Featured Dads, YOUR STORY

Two Educators and Fathers talk about fostering a sense of acceptance, safety, and warmth like Mister Rogers.

Daddy’s Digest (DD): Why does Mister Rogers resonate for Gregg and Ryan?

Gregg: Well, first of all, because Mister Rogers really was our neighbor! We’re both from western Pennsylvania, where Fred Rogers was born and where he created Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. We grew up watching him on television, and the fact that we shared this part of the world with him felt like something special. 

Several years ago, we began to appreciate Fred on a different level. As part of the work we’re privileged to do for The Grable Foundation — a family foundation working to improve the lives of Pittsburgh’s youth — we spend a lot of time learning about learning itself: reading the latest research, talking with learning scientists, and supporting some of the most innovative educators in the United States. Again and again, we heard these folks asking questions like: How do we make sure kids feel safe? How do we make sure they belong to a community that cares about them? Their conversations sounded just like scripts from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And that’s when we began to see Fred as a learning scientist — someone who was decades ahead of his time when it came to understanding how children learn best.

DD: Let’s get right to it – Bullying is clearly a huge problem…can learning about values really change things for kids?

Ryan: We note in When You Wonder, You’re Learning: Mister Rogers’ Enduring Lessons for Raising Creative, Curious, Caring Kids that there was really one value at the Neighborhood’s core: “I like you just the way you are.” Fred knew how important it was for every human being to feel accepted — not for who we could be or for who we might become, but for who we are right now, with all of our strengths and shortcomings and flaws. Regardless of what we look like or where we come from, we each need to know that we’re worthy of the neighborhood we all share.

Bullying is a huge, multifaceted problem — one that might involve peer pressure, issues of race and class, developmental changes in young people’s brains, and the natural human tendency to form in-groups and out-groups. But at the end of the day, almost every case can be viewed as a breakdown of that Fred-like acceptance.

No one who’s truly confident in his or her worth will bully others.

On the contrary, when we feel accepted and valued as we are, we’re far more likely to accept and value others. Fred knew firsthand what it felt like to crave this unconditional acceptance: He was bullied as a child, and he spent his adult career building a place where no one would have to wonder whether they mattered.

DD: If a child is being bullied, how important is it to find like-minded parents who share your values? Where can you find parents like this?

Gregg: I don’t think you have to look far, but you might need to start the conversation. According to surveys, most parents want more or less the same thing: for their children to grow into loving, caring adults who value family and generosity. Parents generally consider kindness to be even more important than their children’s academic or professional success. Most of us, I think, would be horrified to hear that our children are bullying or being bullied.

The problem is that our words and actions don’t always match up with our beliefs. In one survey, kids were asked what would make their parents prouder: getting good grades or being a caring community member. Despite parents’ stated values, kids were three times more likely to say “good grades.” As adults, it’s worth asking what we’re doing — or not doing — to convey the importance of kindness. What kinds of examples are we setting at home? Or on social media? Or at school board meetings?

DD: To you what’s the difference between acceptance and celebration?

Ryan: I don’t make much distinction between the two. There’s a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles named Gregory Boyle who’s famous for his gang intervention work. When Fr. Boyle discusses acceptance, he calls it “no matter whatness” — the idea that, as he puts it, “no matter what you do, I’m always going to be here. You can turn your back on me . . . but I’ll never turn my back on you.” To me, that’s the highest form of acceptance there is. And it’s also a celebration of the worth inherent in every human being.

If we’re lucky, we might meet a handful of people throughout our lives who’ll accept us without condition. Some of us might not meet anyone who’ll do so at all. I think part of the reason we celebrate Fred — even 20 years after his death — is because he so freely offered “no matter whatness” to whomever entered his Neighborhood. How different would things be if the rest of us offered the same?

DD: What’s the Mister Rogers roadmap for parents and building neighborhoods where people like one another just as they are?

Gregg: That’s the roadmap at the heart of When You Wonder, You’re Learning. Fred knew it takes a neighborhood to help kids discover their full selves — to find out what makes them curious; what makes them unique; and ultimately, what brings them meaning and joy.

In fact, for the past 15 years, we’ve been using Fred’s roadmap to build that neighborhood right here in Fred’s backyard. Remake Learning — a network of thousands of parents, teachers, artists, and makers, many of whom worked with Fred himself — connects Pittsburgh-area schools, museums, libraries, afterschool programs, and all the other places where young people learn. By working together, the network sparks the sort of learning experiences we saw in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: experiences that leverage the arts, literacy, technology, the outdoors, and more to nurture children’s potential and build caring, inclusive communities.

We like to call this “the Fred Method,” referring to Fred’s belief that learning, at its best, is informed by science and supportive of children’s needs. Fred knew we all need the same thing, which is this: “Whether we’re a preschooler or young teen, a graduating college senior or a retired person, we human beings all want to know that we’re acceptable — that our being alive somehow makes a difference in the lives of others. We need to know that we’re worth being proud of.”

As parents, that knowledge is the most important gift we can give.

Gregg Behr and Ryan Rydzewski’s book, WHEN YOU WONDER, YOU’RE LEARNING: MISTER ROGERS’ ENDURING LESSONS FOR RAISING CREATIVE, CURIOUS, CARING KIDS, profiles people building modern-day Neighborhoods in which every child hears that same reminder. The book also gives readers advice for fostering a sense of acceptance, safety, and warmth in schools, libraries, living rooms, and all the places where young people learn.

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