Saturday, January 30, 2010

Learning from Mr. Rogers

Culpeper Virginia has just banned the Diary of Anne Frank based on the objections of one parent. In the most recently released version of the book -- the original diaries were edited by her father -- Anne incredulously examines her own vagina and expresses some of the worries and doubts of a young girl. For that passage, the entire book was banned across the entire school system.
Too bad.
Pulling a work like that sends many messages to young people, but among the most harmful is that the world is a pretty frightening place. It's so scary that even the adults are afraid of it. In a world like that, who could a young person turn to in order to make sense of the most worrisome aspects of what it means to be a human being? And worse yet, being a girl must be a pretty dirty enterprise.
Too bad.
Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was my model for how to handle the responsibilities of parenting and serving as a public model for the young and the very young.
On his television show - which is often mocked and ridiculed by those above the age of six while while it simultaneously attracts legions of adoring of pre-schoolers - Mr. Rogers confronted and dispensed with many childhood fears. He knew his audience: tiny people who have a lot to sort out, and he spoke exclusively to them.
My favorite episode was the one that addressed the worries of children who would be going off to school in the fall. Mr. Rogers took his audience on a tour of a school, pointing out all the ways a child would be watched over and cared for in this new, impersonal environment.
The highlight for me was when he pointed out the bathrooms (so don't worry about that) and the toilets were "just your size!" He even showed them one and how it works. Also he pointed out where you could wash your hands and how to use a towel dispenser. I could just imagine a chorus of sighs among all those anxious four and five year-olds.
Everything about Mr. Rogers was calm. His overall message was the same: there's nothing to be afraid of here. There are lots of big people who will watch out for you. Don't be afraid. It will all make sense in the end.
Later, I read that Mr. Rogers' rule about talking with young people was encompassed in one sentence: "If it happens to a human being, we can talk about it."
I used that maxim throughout my years of rearing children. I use that maxim when answering questions from adolescents. Every question must be taken seriously. Especially one's like Anne's - one that kept me awake at night: "How can a baby come out of there?" For me, the answer to that question was nothing short of miraculous -- but certainly not dirty or nasty.
Without adults who can model equanimity in the face of life's mysteries, what is a child to assume? Why the obvious of course: not even grown ups can handle these scary things. It's right to be afraid.
When there are questions that aren't allowed to be asked, the children will turn to each other for answers. What they'll get in return are the same answers the earliest humans employed: superstitions, rumors, half-truths, and maybe, if the contemporary child is lucky, some good advice--most likely from a peer who has an adult in their sphere who is willing to speak frankly and calmly. Do we really want to leave our children with this kind of roulette wheel answering system?
When books and other areas of human behavior are off limits, we are not protecting our children from temptations. We are just leaving them in the wilderness without a map.
When the adults respond with hysteria, we are not teaching moral behavior. We are modeling fear. And anyone who has worked with children or adults knows that the risk-takers will run straight for the scariest thing they can find while the rest will meekly cower in continued ingnorance.
Neither of those behaviors is a healthy response.
Too bad.