These six words are the crystallization of the philosophy of Fred Rogers, a mantra that guided nearly 1,000 episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood from 1966 to 2000. This Thanksgiving, you can watch the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood for the full story of Mister Rogers. For now, let’s lean into the wisdom of his words:
You were a child once too.
As was often the case with his sayings, Mister Rogers spoke simply and profoundly. The genius of this phrase is that it hints at the difference between sympathy and empathy. Though these terms may be used interchangeably, they are far different when expressed toward children. Sympathy would merely acknowledge a young one’s feelings, while empathy would put yourself in that child’s sneakers or sandals. You would once again toddle forward on your bare feet. As much as humanly possible, a child’s excitement, suffering, curiosity, or fear would become yours.
What a monumental difference an empathetic viewpoint would make in our current debates. Think hard about how the conversation would transform around public education, healthcare, and climate change! How much better, kinder, and wiser would we be if we thought about future generations as if they were us?
You were a child once too.
In addition to empathy, Mister Rogers invites us to self-awareness. If we were able to step inside someone else’s experience, I wonder if we would also find peace inside our own hearts, minds, and skins. With a childlike perspective, I believe we would experience the world around us as full of wonder.
I confess that from a young age I have been a chronic eavesdropper. I don’t snoop on strangers with malicious intent, but I listen in hopes of overhearing little stories that—like tiny birds—sing all around us. Stories of awe and aha in the muddle of our days.
Recently, I was at the park. As my sons happily played Batman on the slide, I eased on to a bench within earshot of a picnic table where a family was celebrating a child’s third birthday. I watched and listened as a grandmother handed this birthday girl a gift bag. As would be understood by most adults, I knew the present was concealed underneath tissue paper sticking out of the top of the bag. But the child lit up for a different reason.
“Granny, you gave me tissues to blow my nose! Thank you!”
Of course, the child was shown how to remove the tissue paper and, soon enough, she was pushing a new toy racecar.
But in this season of gratitude, won’t you linger with me for a moment of empathy and wonder? Consider what it would have been like to be that child. To have her initial response of gratitude for exactly what was given. Can you imagine?
Let me tell you, gentle reader, that watching and listening to that child’s joy certainly made for a beautiful day in my neighborhood.
So, Happy Thanksgiving. And remember that you were a child once too.
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Photo: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar