Though I planned to be one of those parents who didn't show my toddler any screens, parenting has turned out to be more relentless than I expected, and my daughter gets a fairly regular dose of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
It's been kind of fascinating to watch the terrible third-generation copies of ancient episodes on YouTube, because I watched a lot of Mister Rogers when I was little and I can't help wondering how it shaped me. For those of you who haven't seen the show in a few decades, Fred Rogers is unflaggingly kind, gentle and curious. He makes direct eye contact with his "television friends" and patiently explains the simplest things, like how orange juice is made or how batteries work.
A friend of mine, who grew up with a very angry father, names Mister Rogers as the single most significant adult figure in his childhood. He meant a lot to me, too. Though I grew up in a deeply critical and often warring family, my mom would always comment, mystified, that I "had a big heart and always took the underdog's side." Did Mister Rogers help shape that? She would regularly spout racist Republican garbage—and I would push back, from a very young age. Is that because I saw the many episodes where Mr. Rogers is kind to people we are generally taught to scorn, including the somewhat legendary 1968 episode wherein he washes a black man's feet? Or did I just have common sense and human decency? Hard to know
Back in the dark ages, before social media, I used to moderate the forums on a website called The Icarus Project (theicarusproject.net). Because we positioned ourselves as a political project, navigating the intersection of mental health and social justice—and because it was the internet—thorny conversations about topics like race would flare up into raging firestorms, and part of my job was to contain or extinguish those fires. I was an idealistic 24 year old, so at first I was naïve enough to think I could reason and argue sense into trolls. Eventually I realized we needed community guidelines and firm boundaries. I started tossing around the phrase "it is more important to be kind than to be right," and tried to apply it in my own life.
This was a big leap for me. I grew up in a family of ardent fighters and screamers, and being "right" was very, very important. So important it nearly destroyed us. By my early 20s, I was dabbling in Buddhism and 12-step recovery, trying to figure out how to do things differently; how do you move through the world from a softer, more centered place?
I failed often. Under too much stress, I got prickly and razor-tongued. Sometimes I still do. A short temper is a hard thing to unlearn, especially when some fierce part of you is convinced you need it to survive. In my late 20s, I started studying somatics, a modality of healing and coaching that works through the body to heal trauma and give us more choices about how we live our lives. Everything we "studied" in class we practiced in pairs and small groups, and folks could get pretty triggered. Sometimes we joked we should call the class "traumatics and drama" instead of somatics and trauma. When I got triggered, I either grew distant or I grew fierce. It helped and it hurt.
At one point, my teacher posited that anger exists to protect our dignity, which was a minor revelation to me. I had a lot of anger at my anger. It had caused me so much trouble, but her words rang immediately true. As a survivor of a family life that had tried to silence, smother, and invisibilize me, anger was a core part of protecting my dignity and the integrity of my soul. It helped me survive all the gaslighting and vitriol of my home. It helped me get out of the South and move away to parts of the world where I could be my freaky queer self and find my people. It helped me believe I was worth saving.
Anger is powerful fuel, but it is not enough to sustain us. At some point it became clear that if I wanted any stability in my life (stable relationships, stable housing, stable work), I was going to have to learn how to soften and get along with people. Now that I have a kid, I get schooled on that lesson day after day. Mister Rogers may have taught me a lot about kindness, but he did not rewire my nervous system. Being consistently patient and gentle with a rebellious toddler is no joke. I am not always pulling it off. They say toddlers are like teenagers, and I am understanding a lot more about why my mom and I fought so much when I was a teen. This shit is hard. Everything unhealed in me wants to leap out of my throat when my daughter is pushing my buttons.
Mister Rogers ends most of his episodes with the song "I like you just the way you are." It's a bit saccharine, a bit off key, and a bit beautiful. I wonder if I am strong enough to like my daughter, and myself, just the ways we are. Tantrums and all.
Necessary Magic is a semi-regular column wherein writer and artist Jacks McNamara explores queer issues, liberatory politics, magical creatures and other relevant topics. Learn more at jacksmcnamara.net