When Jesus announces that his hearers must become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of God, it’s safe to assume that his audience found this comment remarkable. After all, it’s silly to tell adults to act less like adults. Here’s a question I’ve been pondering, though: Has the force of those words has been almost totally lost to contemporary Americans? It’s hard for me to imagine that this notion does in us what it did in its original hearers because I don’t think the lines between childhood and adulthood are drawn as starkly in our own age.
One reason is that children are increasingly treated like adults. That was one of my more eye-opening takeaways from Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s book The Coddling of the American Mind, which I recently reviewed. Haidt and Lukianoff present a significant amount of psychological and sociological research that shows that children, especially preteens and teens, are under enormous pressure of academic performance and vigorously monitored activity. Ironically, the upshot of this is that iGen is growing up much more slowly than previous generations because their meritocratic rhythms of life prevent them from free play and other experiences that help develop intellectual and emotional maturity. In other words, kids are basically preparing for college and career so fast that they fail to prepare for growing up.
If it’s true that American children are often viewed/treated beyond their age, I think it’s reasonable to wonder if American grown ups are likewise failing to flourish.
In a recent piece at The Atlantic, Ian Bogost criticized the prevalence of an internet meme in the aftermath of the Squirrel Hill synagogue massacre. The meme is a quote from the beloved Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood host Fred Rogers, a classic children’s TV show that has conspicuously enjoyed a resurgence of attention and affection from social media in recent years. The quote, in which Rogers recommends that whenever something bad happens we ought always “look for the helpers,” has been widely circulated after numerous national tragedies/atrocities. It’s clear that many people, especially millennials, find Mr. Rogers and this quote deeply comforting. The problem, Bogost writes, is that the quote was never meant to comfort adults but children, and the reliance of so many adults on these sentiments may signal an unwillingness to engage hard realities with appropriate maturity:
Once a television comfort for preschoolers, “Look for the helpers” has become a consolation meme for tragedy. That’s disturbing enough; it feels as though we are one step shy of a rack of drug-store mass-murder sympathy cards. Worse, Fred Rogers’s original message has been contorted and inflated into something it was never meant to be, for an audience it was never meant to serve, in a political era very different from where it began. Fred Rogers is a national treasure, but it’s time to stop offering this particular advice.
Whether or not one agrees with Bogost about this particular issue will probably depend on how seriously one takes internet memes (I doubt that most of the people who Retweeted it consciously did so in lieu of activism or donating). But I think Bogost is on to something when he flags the feverish popularity of Mr. Rogers-style aphorisms in our current culture. Why is there such an intense interest among American millennials in Mr. Rogers after all? Nostalgia is likely part of it, but as Bogost points out, social media users share (and re-share) clips and quotes from Fred Rogers especially when there is something horrific in the news cycle. It looks more like an emotional catharsis that transcends 80s nostalgia.
As someone who was raised on the show and has been introducing my young son to it, I’ve been confused by the intensity of the appreciation. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was/is a brilliant program, and Fred Rogers possessed an obvious talent for connecting with and helping children. Multiple recent documentaries on Rogers, and numerous first-person pieces about the show’s legacy, demonstrate his gift. But the show is quite plainly directed at young children, and every facet—from Rogers’ slow, simple speech, to the colorful set of his home, to the simplistic aphorisms—is very much childlike. It’s not a profound or devotional show, nor should it be. It’s precisely the kind of thing a very young child, still discovering emotional self-awareness and her own fragility, loves to see and hear. Even the most pointed moments are little more than wistful conversation between a loving grandfatherly figure and a wide-eyed child. If Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood were a church, it would be a church that adults would be thrilled to drop off their kids at, but certainly not one they would willingly attend for themselves.
So why do American millennials not only like Mr. Rogers, but consult him? I’ll offer two brief guesses on this.
First, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is a showcase for a strong, sympathetic masculinity that fills an important (and contested) void in modern American culture. Choked between the sexual thuggishness of Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly and the deconstructionism of gender theory, many Americans do not know what it means to be, or see, a man. For the millions of millennials who did not know a present, loving father in their childhood, the grandfatherly way of Fred Rogers is not just a balm, it’s a revelation of the way things should be.
My second guess is a little more cynical: Lots of American twenty and thirtysomethings need to be talked to as if they are children because that’s how they feel inside. The architecture of American life in the 21st century is relentlessly adolescent. Consider how closely social media tends to resemble the in-groups of public school, or how an overwhelming percentage of our literary and cinematic heroes are either kids or adults becoming more like kids. Has it ever been easier in American society to resist the pull of adulthood? Everything from technology to education to parenting undersells growing up.
In a fragmented, entertainment-soaked public life, rites of passage into adulthood are notoriously fuzzy, if they exist at all. The school-to-college-to-career pipeline is, for many of us, a monochromatic experience that fails to satisfy. Nowadays it is rarely clear when our childhood games ended and test-prep began, or when wide-eyed-wonder at the world gave way to building our identity and resume. Might it be that Mr. Rogers’ gentle, childlike wisdom seems profound to us right now because we never actually learned it in the first place?
It’s probably not for nothing that almost every episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood begins and ends in a home. As I was watching a portion of the episode I turned on for my son, I marveled at how such a small set (a single tracking shot showed all of Mr. Rogers’ house in about 4 seconds) could feel so comfortable and permanent on the show. My fear is that the resurgence of popularity for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is really about a generation’s turning toward a home in the absence of other options, and mistaking the sounds of welcome for profundity.
Don’t get me wrong: Mr. Rogers is a great show, and I’m glad that God put Fred Rogers on this earth to make it. But I think there’s always something amiss when grown ups continually return to the snack-sized wisdom and comfort of a TV show. I think Bogost is correct that taking what is meant to calm a confused, immature soul as normative way of calibrating our emotional response to the world is a way of failing to think and feel truthfully. This is why Christ calls us to come to him for rest as well as truth. There are greater things ahead than what we leave behind—including the neighborhood.