Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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Hedda Sharapan

Fred Rogers’ birthday is March 20th. It’s our third annual “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Day. Why don’t you join us in celebrating by wearing a sweater – and doing something neighborly?

With our focus on “neighborliness” this month, I’ve been thinking about what that concept means -- especially for young children. There certainly are lots of ways children can be “neighborly” — by helping someone, by appreciating others, by resolving conflicts peaceably, by being respectful and kind, etc. Being "neighborly" means getting along with others, and everyone agrees that's important for school success.

Someone once pointed out to me that even though “neighborliness” was central to Fred Rogers, he didn’t say, “Be nice.” Instead, he let us know that it’s hard to be nice – but it’s important to try. He modeled what it looks like and sounds like to be respectful, kind and helpful -- and he showed us what a good feeling that can be. That made us want to try.

It is hard for children to be nice. Sure, there’s research that tells us that even infants and toddlers show empathy early on. But at the same time, we know children are ego-centric. Their own needs come first. They need time to develop the ability to see things from another person’s point of view. They want instant gratification, and they’re working on developing self-control.

Here are some things I’ve learned from Fred about encouraging “neighborliness”:

Modeling:

It’s important for children to see adults being respectful, kind and helpful. There’s a Quaker saying that Fred often quoted, “Attitudes are caught, not taught.” Children want to be like the important adults in their lives. They’re watching and listening to see how we handle situations…when we say “thank you” to a child or parent or staff person…show appreciation for a simple gift of a child’s drawing or a family’s treat…say "I'm sorry"... kindly welcome a new child and family into the group…or respect someone’s need for alone time. That's how we model for children every day.

Noticing:

Let children know that you noticed when they do something that’s helpful or respectful, or when they work on resolving conflicts. I’ve heard people call that “catch them doing something right.” That’s the kind of behavior that we want to reinforce. We can do that with words or with just a nod.

Fred also used to say, “You don’t have to like everyone, but you do have to be respectful.” That may be one of the most important messages of all, no matter how old we are.

There are so many ways you're encouraging neighborliness, but maybe you haven't thought about it like that. If you have any ideas you'd like to share with us, I'd love to hear from you.

A Video from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood

This scene of Mister Rogers making a thank-you card for his neighbor Mr. McFeely seems so simple, but look closely and you’ll see all the ways that Fred models being a caring neighbor – and much more!

P.S. We've been doing this new version of our newsletter for about six months, and I've really enjoyed working on it. I wondered what you think of it, and if it's helpful? Are you forwarding it to colleagues? To parents? Are the videos meaningful? The activity ideas? Do you have ideas for future topics? It would be great to have some feedback from you. Email me at sharapan@fci.org -- and thanks for being our neighbor!

From Our Readers

Last month we asked for for ways that you're helping children with separation concerns. Here are some of the ideas we received:

  • Our children go to the window to wave their last good-byes. For some it’s easier to walk the parent to the door for that last hug and kiss. Of course, a teacher is right behind them to help them return to the room. G.H.
  • For many years I have taught parents and teachers a ritualized way to say goodbye in the morning. The words are simple: “Goodbye. I love you. Have fun. I’ll be back at 5:00.”

    Goodbye—expresses closure. It is so much better than a parent asking, “May I go now?” or "I'm going now. Okay?" I love you—tells children that you are leaving them there out of love, not because you can’t wait to escape from them. Have fun—tells children that you expect them to have a good time. Never say, “Be good!” Good means different behaviors at different times and is putting pressure on children to always behave. I’ll be back at (specific time)—lets children know that you’ll be back and there’s a specific time. Children don’t need to have an understanding of clock time; they simply want to know that their parent knows when to come back. C.M.
  • When I think a child might be having separation problems, I’ll say something like, “Let’s write a letter to your mom.” The child might dictate it to me, or I might feed her some possible things to say. Some children want me to draw a sad face – and they love it when I draw the tears coming down their face. It seems that the more tears, the better! We’re showing children that we’re not afraid of the emotions, and that writing is powerful. J.W.

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