February 22, 2020

For a Generation Raised By Mr. Rogers, Does it Pay to Be a Mensch?

Kids playing at the park. Photo from Flickr.

Every weekday morning before preschool, like millions of other American kids, I sat on the floor and watched Mr. Rogers on our family television. He taught me that I was special, and he taught me to be kind. In the 70s, 80s and 90s, his show, “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” inspired children to have a generous heart, to learn about our world with an open mind, and to take care of our neighbors. Sony Pictures just premiered the trailer for the new feature film about Fred Rogers life starring Tom Hanks and it’s given us a window into the man whose values shaped a generation. 

As a Jewish child many of these values were echoed by my own Rabbis and Jewish educators. Each Friday at day school we collected tzedakah and we learned about a different mitzvah of the week. Often these were themed by principle Jewish components like gimilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness) or tikun olam (repairing the world). The highest aspiration for our evolving identities was to become a tzadik in adulthood, a righteous individual, or in more common Yiddish – a mensh! 

But in today’s reality, it’s often the bully who gets to the head of the class, the front of the boardroom, and sometimes even to his own desk in the Oval Office. I am acutely aware of this contradiction in my values vs. my cynicism about the ‘real world’ because I have a two year old.

My son has a current aversion to sharing. And from what I’ve observed of his peers, this seems to be a typical character trait of most little kids. When we’re at the park on a playdate I’m constantly reminding him that he needs to “take turns” and “share.” But I caught myself second guessing my own advice, I mean should he really give up what he wants to play with for the sake of another? 

If he cries and stands up for his selfish interests in holding onto his treasure of the moment, he sometimes wins. Sure it’s not a win win, because of course the other child loses, but it’s a win for him. And why should he have to sacrifice his truck or train? Shouldn’t I rather teach him to defend his personal interests? 

In business school I was taught the value of teamwork in a corporate setting, but in my day to day observations of actual office politics things looked very different. The men (rarely women) who got the promotions were those who pretended to play nice with their colleagues but who were exceptionally talented at claiming ideas and successes, those who could naturally take credit for ideas in a meeting and speak of accomplishments in a way that highlighted their own contributions. Sometimes I wonder if I’d have more competitive confidence in adulthood if I watched more Nickelodeon and less Mr. Rogers. 

I’m not ready to abandon the values I was raised with just yet, the ones championed by Mr. Rogers and supported by my Jewish belief system…but I do worry about the dwindling role models in politics, in business, and in celebrity culture who live a successful life and are good neighbors to those around them.

Marion Haberman is a writer and content creator for her YouTube/MyJewishMommyLife channel and Instagram @MyJewishMommyLife page where she shares her experience living a meaning-FULL Jewish family life. Haberman is currently writing a book on Judaism and pregnancy titled “Expecting Jewish!” to be released Winter 2019. She is also a professional social media consultant and web and television writer for Discovery Channel, NatGeo and has an MBA from Georgetown University. 

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