When I was growing up in Pittsburgh in the early 70s I watched a lot of Mr. Rogers. He was a local celebrity and lived just a few blocks away. One weekend when I was in kindergarten, my dad and I were walking through a parking lot behind some stores in a busy shopping area. I remember my dad, who was holding my hand, squeezed it and said, “Nina, do you see who that is?” As I looked up, we were 3 feet from Mr. Rogers. I froze. And with no pause, in his exact TV voice, he said, “It’s funny sometimes, isn’t it, when we see people that we usually see on TV someplace where we don’t expect to see them?”
I’m sure he had many occasions to say just that to many different children. Even so, the simple thoughtfulness of his approach to me in that moment is something that has stayed with me into adulthood and illustrates fundamental ideas in nurturing the emotional intelligence of children: empathy and naming feelings.
First, Mr. Rogers spoke to me (not my dad), and in a slightly indirect manner so it wasn’t so confrontational or frightening. I didn’t feel put on the spot as his comment didn’t require a response. Second, he acknowledged my surprise, didn’t make me feel childish, embarrassed or small, and furthermore, with a simple “we” helped me to realize that it wasn’t only me – or children – who might feel awkward in such a situation. A memorable and instructive interaction to be sure… –n