The other day we watched the 2019 movie
. It is a delightful biography of Fred Rogers, the host of the children’s TV series Mister Rogers' Neighborhood which aired in the US from 1968 to 2001. At the heart of the TV show - and also the movie - is the uncanny ability of Fred Rogers to accept children (and people in general) for who and what they are rather than waiting for them to become a more acceptable version of themselves.
It was such a powerful and unassuming gift that it turned a cynical reporter into a lifelong friend - changing his life for the better along the way. When the movie first introduces Fred Rogers, he seems almost too good to be true. As a matter of fact, when the Esquire reporter, Lloyd Vogel (Tom Junod in real life), having been tasked to write a piece on him, first meets him, he is convinced that he is some kind of a fraud and that enough probing will reveal as much. But as the movie progresses, it is clear that Rogers is no fake, that he really is able to accept children (and people in general) for who they are - rather than waiting for them to reveal a better version of themselves in the future.
Now, just to be clear, the movie does not portray Rogers as a “saint”. It is quite evident that this powerful gift he has is not something he was born with, but rather a mindset and a daily discipline that resulted from a deep conviction that every person (even very unlikable ones) was worthy of acceptance. Rogers “worked” on this discipline of acceptance every day. In Junod’s own words: ‘He practiced [kindness] like he practiced a musical instrument. I think he did the scales every day’.
As parents, we all want the best for our children. We have hopes and dreams about their future and this is perfectly normal and healthy. However, we live in an extremely competitive world and sometimes this competition seeps into our interactions with our children. We start comparing them to others and before long they unwittingly become part of a rat-race they cannot win…. Instead of experiencing that we accept them as they are on their development path into discovering the world, they see us measuring their progress in unhealthy ways. Our initial joy and awe at how they grow and develop are replaced with a scorecard. Instead of encouraging them on their own unfolding life journey and celebrating with them as they develop, we keep waiting for the next milestone, the next word, the next movement, while anxiously keeping an eye on the “competition”. Ultimately the message that our children get from this is that they are not good enough, that our complete and full acceptance comes at a price. Instead of growing up knowing they are unconditionally accepted, they learn that acceptance comes with strings attached - i.e being the best, first, prettiest, fastest, etc, etc.
But there is a better way…
All parents need to learn new skills as their children grow up - it comes with the territory! If our parenting responsibilities also require that we learn how not to be intimidated into an unhealthy competition mindset, surely we can master that as well - perhaps taking a leaf from the Fred Rogers playbook? We can and should practise the discipline of accepting that each of our children has a unique journey that is worth celebrating. Our job is to ensure they know this - not just through our words, but our actions. If we manage that, our children will have the emotional foundation to deal with the challenges that come their way as they progressively venture into the competitive world through school and beyond.
Dr. Jacobus (Lieb) Liebenberg