What Mister Rogers can teach grandparents

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on January 6, 2019. It can also be found online here, an image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

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Like many others, our family is recovering from holiday travel. We spent the past week with my side of the family, and when it was time to go, our daughters had to have their arms surgically removed from Grandma and Grandpa. They just didn’t want to go.

In our house we appreciate grandparents so much that our kids have nearly double the normal allotment—seven, to be precise, through remarriage and one fantastic great-grandparent.

So it was interesting to read a couple recent Gazette “Letters to the Editor” by two grandparent-age locals on December 30, 2018. Their words were a window into the gap that too often separates society’s oldest and youngest generations—and a unique opportunity for legendary children’s television host Mister Rogers to illuminate some wisdom on the art of grandparenting.

The first letter was from a woman who was upset over the “terrible” conditions at the outdoor ice skating rink downtown in Acacia Park (“Skate in the Park”). Over the holidays, she brought her 6-year old granddaughter there, and said the “rutted and dangerous” ice caused the little lady to fall and “her front teeth went through her bottom lip.” The letter-writer was shocked that medical help wasn’t immediately available; the family had to care for the bleeding 6-year old on their own.

I don’t know what the conditions were like that day. Maybe they were bad. But having grown up in Minnesota on outdoor ice rinks, with skates where feet should be, I feel qualified to observe that the only way to learn to skate is to fall. Repeatedly. My lumpy elbows carry the consequences of my determination to skate and play hockey.

Instead of focusing on the ice, this concerned grandparent might look to the silver lining from the entire cut-lip experience. As Mister Rogers put it, “When the gusty winds blow and shake our lives, if we know that there are those people who care about us, we may bend with the wind—but we won’t break.”

Sure, the letter-writer’s granddaughter fell and bled. But more importantly, this 6-year old got back up again, and she saw that her grandparents and parents were there for her when it may have seemed that no one else was. That’s a memory that beats any gift under the Christmas tree, and one I’ll wager the child will carry her entire life.

On the same day in the “Letters” section, a self-identified 71-year old gentleman declared his dismay that “everywhere you go there has to be children that scream and cry and run all around and parents do nothing about it.” He advised today’s parents to “teach children to be quiet and enjoy dinner or leave them home.”

Now, to be sure, there’s some truth in that. Americans recently began spending more money on dining out than at grocery stores, which means there are probably a lot of families that take “casual dining” a little too far. Some families might not make much distinction between eating in public and their own living room. They should.

But just under the surface of this letter-writer’s comment was the old adage that “children are to be seen and not heard.”

Mister Rogers would certainly beg to differ. He taught that children are to be both “seen and heard,” because it shows children that they actually matter to adults. To banish kids physically or emotionally from mealtime would be a megaphone announcing that kids aren’t important.

Sure, parents shouldn’t tolerate some childish behavior, but we should all equally recognize the fact that sometimes children act up in public and if we’re to have any future at all, we’d better get used to it.

While we may not agree on specific child-rearing approaches, I think we can all agree on two things. First, aged grandparents and young children are a benefit to each other and all of us. As Mister Rogers has pointed out, “grandparents are both our past and our future” in part because they “join the threads of the past with the threads of the future.” Finding ways to come together is important, whether it’s in rinks or restaurants.

And, second: Mister Rogers is pretty much always right.

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