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Big Bird And Mister Rogers Are Not Just For Kids: We Need Their Wisdom More Than Ever

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Even though the news has obviously moved on, it's still important to correct a common, and dangerous, misperception that lies at the root of Mitt Romney's expressed desire to terminate funding for Big Bird and PBS -- that they are solely for kids and liberals. Therefore, not only are they expendable, but they need to be gotten rid of. In short, they are corrupting influences.
First of all, Big Bird is not just for kids. No matter what one's age, the values for which Big Bird and PBS stand for speak to our better nature.

Adults don't watch Big Bird just because they have kids. They watch him because they enjoy his humor, and yes, his wisdom as well. That's why adults who don't have kids are also loyal fans of Big Bird and Sesame Street. The same was true of Mister Rogers.

Second, like Mister Rogers, Big Bird is a cultural icon. Indeed, Mister Rogers and Big Bird are integral parts of this nation's cultural repository. That's why in getting rid of Big Bird, we'd also be getting rid of the legacy of Mister Rogers.

Third, some of the primary values of Mister Rogers are precisely those that are needed to succeed in the global economy. Thus, in getting rid of PBS, we'd also be getting rid of one of the primary sources of education for the new skills that are required to compete in the global economy.

Fourth, is anyone naïve enough to believe that any network other than PBS would run Big Bird and Mister Rogers for as long as it has? No, it's not the paltry sum of money why conservatives want to get rid of Big Bird, Mister Rogers, and PBS. It's the values for which they stand.

For this reason alone, it's important to take a deeper look at the values of Mister Rogers, the particular character we've studied the most and therefore know best.

Seven Key Principles: The Seven C's

We've captured the gist of Fred's values is in terms of the following "Seven Key Principles." Each is illustrated through a direct quote from Fred himself:

  1. Connect: "A person can grow to his or her fullest capacity only in mutually caring relationships with others."
  2. Concern: "Setting rules is one of the primary ways in which we show our love."
  3. Creativity: "Play is the expression of our creativity, and creativity, I believe, is at the very root of our ability to learn, to cope, and to become whatever we may be."
  4. Communication: "In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers."
  5. Consciousness: "Take good care of that part of you where your best dreams come from, that invisible part of you that allows you to look upon yourself and your neighbor with delight."
  6. Courage: "One of the greatest paradoxes about omnipotence is that we need to feel it early in life, and lose it early in life, in order to achieve a healthy, realistic, yet exciting sense of potency later on."
  7. Community: "All of us, at some time or other, need help. Whether we're giving or receiving help, each one of us has something valuable to bring to this world. That's one of the things that connects us as neighbors -- in our own way, each one of us is a giver and a receiver."

Although we've summarized Fred's values and wisdom in the form of principles, Fred didn't expound abstract principles. Instead, he told countless stories and created original fables to forge deep and personal connections with each of his viewers. This is another reason why PBS is invaluable. It's not that other networks don't tell stories. Of course they do. Rather, it's the particular kind of stories that Fred told that made him and us special.

Stories and fables are how one engages and holds the attention of young children. They are also one of the main ways in which one gains the attention of adults. But, they are even more basic. Humans are the only creatures that invent and listen to fables and stories. They are the essence of what make us human.

Through the use of fanciful characters, animals, and magic, fables take us out of everyday reality, transport us to places and situations that are sharper and larger than life, and thereby teach us profound moral lessons. Fables impact us as few forms of communication do because they hit us squarely in our guts and souls. Because they apply to every aspect of life, they are as relevant to business as they are to our lives in general.

Consider for example "The Bass Violin Festival," which is one of the many stories from the "Neighborhood of Make-Believe" (NMB), the magical place that Fred took viewers to visit during every show. The purpose of the fable is to help readers understand better the nature and the process of creativity (Principle 3).

In the story, King Friday (the stand-in for today's CEOs) tells all his subjects (employees) that they must be prepared to play the bass violin (a skill at which he is an expert) at an upcoming festival (corporate meeting). To help them, he gives each of them the latest violin (technology). But as is so often the case, the latest technology only frightens them even more because it reveals their inadequacies. Only when the subjects take the time to play creatively -- that is, figuratively and not literally play the violin -- do they come up with solutions that enable them to conquer their fears of not having the technical expertise (job skills) to complete the assignment (task). For example, one of the characters dresses up in a violin costume. She thus "plays at being a violin."

Only in this way, can they then contribute to the festival (meeting) by using their individual, unique talents. The principles and lessons embedded in the story thereby show how everyone can step back from a difficult assignment, reframe it, overcome their fears, and produce creative solutions.

This is precisely what we need to do if we are to overcome the countless anxieties associated with the difficult and rocky transformation to the new global economy. The new economy requires people who can think creatively, and hence, exercise critical thinking. While many aspects of blue-collar and even white-collar jobs are already completely automated, creativity and critical thinking will never be. As a result, these can never be outsourced. They are the only true and lasting competitive edge.

Consider another one of Fred's priceless stories about consciousness (Principle 5). Garbage has piled up so high that the kingdom is literally drowning in it. King Friday denies and ignores the crisis in the hope that it will just go away, which of course it doesn't. Instead, it only gets worse. Once again, King Friday tries to solve the problem by ordering his subjects, in this case, to put on nose muffs that will supposedly block the smell. As before, he seeks a purely technical solution to the problem. Only when the subjects confront the King with the fact that his so-called "solutions" only make the problem worse and come up with their own that are environmental sound is the problem truly solved.

Fred told stories because he wanted to speak directly to the child's inner drama. Indeed, in early childhood, the inner drama is perceived and experienced as real and literal. For instance, young children actually worry that when taking a bath they could be literally sucked down the drain along with the water. When we reach adulthood, the inner drama is figurative or metaphorical. Nevertheless, the root of the fear, or inner drama, is lodged in deep, unremembered fears from childhood. This is precisely why Fred continues to speak to us from childhood through adulthood. His messages are so finely honed to the inner dramas of our lives that we can continue to respond them at different levels of development and the stages of our lives.

We cannot stress enough that throughout the forty years of creating programs for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Fred and his team told hundreds of stories. Many of the stories dealt with the issues of everyday life -- how things work, how people make the things we use, where things come from and so on.

The stories are so beautifully crafted that they speak to the basic inner dramas of human existence in ways that transcend the age of the listener. This is why Fred's wisdom resonates from childhood to adulthood. The stories in the NMB can be read and reread by children and grownups alike. Whatever a person's age, they speak to our hearts, our souls, and our spirits. They have lessons to teach us over the course of our lives.

In sum, Big Bird and Mister Rogers are more than for kids alone. Indeed, as put with regard to Fred: "He helped you when you were a kid; he can help you now that you're an adult!"

Co-authored with Donna Mitroff

This article is from a forthcoming book, Donna and Ian Mitroff, in association with the Fred Rogers Company, "Fables and the Art of Leadership; Bringing the Wisdom of Mr. Rogers to the Workplace."

Donna D. Mitroff is an independent children's media consultant and critic. Ian I. Mitroff is an Adjunct Professor at UC Berkeley.