Do we really make a difference?

Hedda Sharapan“Have you ever wondered if you’ve made a difference in the lives of the children who have come to your care?"

That was a question that Fred Rogers asked in his first NAEYC keynote address years ago. People still talk about that speech, and I think it’s because he put into words an unspoken concern that we all have. It’s often hard to tell if we’re making any impact. Just last week I was reminded of Fred’s question when I spoke with a group of high school and college students on a retreat.

A Compelling Moment in Make-Believe

I showed the group a video that I’ve always felt is one of the most powerful moments in Make-Believe. It features a conversation in song between the puppet Daniel Tiger and his friend Lady Aberlin. Daniel confides that he sometimes wonders if he’s a mistake. To calm his fears and doubts, Lady Aberlin answers him, in song, that she thinks he’s fine just as he is. It seemed to me that she was hoping -- as we all do -- that her caring presence and affirming words would make all the difference.

Even when Lady Aberlin offers her reassuring song again, Daniel continues with his concern, wondering if he’s a mistake. Doesn’t he hear her? Don’t her words matter? Aren't those the questions we ask ourselves? And I was reminded of Fred’s question, “Have I made a difference?”

A duet as a metaphor

As Daniel sings, still wondering if he’s a mistake, Lady Aberlin sings with him - and this time he hears her. Now it’s a duet – and it’s one of the most important moments of the segment. To me, their duet becomes a metaphor for a supportive relationship. What we hope is that when things aren’t going well for children, when they need to manage their angry feelings, and even when they’re proud of what they’ve done – we will have given them enough on-going, everyday support that they’ll hear our caring voice in a duet with theirs.

How do we work on giving children the kind of support that makes a difference?

Affirm each child

In order for a “duet” to work, children need to be able to hear that other affirming voice. So if we want to build relationships, we have to make sure we say out loud words of encouragement, support, and appreciation.

Notice the little things

Remember, too, that it’s often the little, everyday, seemingly insignificant things we say that probably make the biggest difference, like welcoming a child into the room…using a child’s name (and pronouncing it right)… letting a child know that you noticed something he or she did. Any exchange of ideas and feelings that are warmly given and received builds positive relationships.

Keep in mind that growing is a process

I heard about a child whose grandfather died and who continually asked, “Tell me what happened to Papa?” Her parents had offered her an appropriate and comforting response, but she needed to hear it again and again before she could internalize it. Even though it may seem that your words aren’t making a difference, remember children work on their concerns through a process -- and it’s often a long process.

It's a real gift when we find out we've had a positive influence in someone's life. I know a teacher who, after the summer break, was spotted by one of the most troublesome four year olds from her group the previous year. She had invested a lot of time and energy in helping him develop social-emotional skills. When he spied her, he called out to her, “Mrs. S. I still know how to be kind!” Fred used to say "There's no better feeling than knowing that what you have to give is of value to others."

We may never know how children -- or their families -- use our words and support. And it may even seem as if they’re not listening – or not hearing us. But we need to trust that when we offer “good stuff,” they’ll hear our voice long after they’ve moved on.

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