My wife Jane and I have four adult children and eight grandchildren, all brilliant and talented, of course. Both of us have fulfilling professional careers that we value, but our family is our priority, and it is a deeply child-centered clan.
Recently we saw the documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, about Fred Rogers’ wonderful PBS program for children. We were both inspired by and nostalgic for the days when his vision of childhood was mainstream and also sobered by the knowledge of what too many children these days must endure.
David Brooks’ recent column about the documentary captures Rogers’ essence: radical kindness, pure love of children, and respect for childhood. No one has been an evangelist for children like Fred Rogers, and I was beyond annoyed with the segment in the documentary of the Fox News panel criticizing Rogers’ show, claiming it caused the entitlement mentality of the youth and later adults who viewed it. There are lots of factors driving entitlement in today’s society, but Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was most definitely not one of them.
There is actually a venerable institution, still active, that also respects and empowers children. Remember 4-H, that old kids’ club? Each summer you can still see its good work at the county and state fair with the kids’ products and displays. Many Americans, even if they were never in 4-H, know what the H’s stand for: Head, Heart, Hands and Health.
In mid-July the local Adventures 4-H Club sponsored a candidate forum. It was at the library and everyone was invited but only youth could participate. Seventh graders Sophia White and Jacob Schelp professionally moderated the panel that included almost all the local legislators. Sophia and Jacob asked the first two questions: “What brought you to your office?” and “What are your priorities?” The legislators gave brief and thoughtful replies and then the youth in the audience asked their questions:
- What is your favorite food?
- How old are you?
- How is your day going?
- What was your favorite subject in school?
- What do you not like about being a legislator?
- What is your favorite animal?
- What is your favorite wild animal?
- Why is there poverty in Missouri?
- Why are you dressed like you are?
- What did you want to be when you grew up?
- Who is your hero?
- What is your favorite movie?
Two of those questions could be categorized as political. The rest were the questions that we jaded and cynical and self-absorbed adults have forgotten how to ask. They can be summarized as follows:
- Who are you as a human being?
- What do you really care about?
These questions for politicians are much more important than finding out their stands on Trump Tweets or abortion or taxes or farm subsidies or street potholes.
That night our youth created an environment that went back to Fred Rogers and his radical love of childhood. And it went back to the radical elegance of the four Hs that are in all of us. There is hope for the future.
Terry Smith is a political science professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.