A Review of
The Mister Rogers Effect:
7 Secrets to Bringing Out the Best in Yourself and Others from America’s Beloved Neighbor
Dr. Anita Knight Kuhnley
Reviewed by Janna Lynas
“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine? Could you be mine?” The song, the trolley whistle, the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, and the VHS tapes that were magically pushed into a wall playing a video about how things were made are still vivid memories for this Gen X’er. My early childhood days weren’t spent much on television, but the clear, kind voice of Mister Rogers is forever imprinted in my memory.
What made it so memorable? The slow tempo, the intentional looking through the screen right at me. It was as if he really wanted to know me. It was like he knew me without assuming anything about me. He was genuinely interested in me.
I’m much older now, a preschool teacher at a local preschool, yet Mister Rogers continues to be a hero and a model for me as I listen and interact with children who are my age when I first saw and heard the magic. The impact of a few short minutes at a time created memories and emotions that have endured the course of four decades for myself. How could these seemingly impersonal moments through a metal tube hold so much power? In The Mister Rogers Effect, Dr. Anita Knight Kuhnley sets out to answer just that.
Kuhnley, an associate professor of counseling at Liberty University, was prompted to study the effect Mr. Rogers’s interactions had with people in the multiple ways he was present with them. After showing her college class a video of Fred Rogers addressing Senator Pastore as to why public television was valuable, needed funding, and more importantly to lead the senator into a very poignant moment of understanding why children need to know how to address their anger, Kuhnley was confronted with extremely emotional students. The comments she received led her to believe there was still great wisdom Fred Rogers could impart to parents, grandparents, siblings, educators, anyone actually, to remind us we can administer hope to others by deeply caring for each other. But how did Mr. Rogers do this and how can we do this today?
Kuhnley identified seven secrets she feels Mr. Rogers used in virtually every interaction he had with people that can bring out the best in ourselves and in others. These seven secrets may seem intuitive, but as I think about each one, I wonder how much I actually practice these secrets in my daily life? Secrets such as “Listen First” and “Show Gratitude” are things I think I have a handle on most of the time. But then Kuhnley points out “Pause and Think”, “Develop Empathy”, “Practice Acceptance” and “Establish Security.”
The first secret, “Listen First.” Kuhnley writes we need to listen to not only hear but also to “…understand what it is like to see life through their eyes and experience it through their skin. We need to listen to understand what it is like to walk around in their world.” (43)
Kuhnley goes on to explain, “…being heard feels so similar to being loved that for many people the distinction goes unnoticed.” (43) She continues by pointing out that our physical posture toward a person we are listening to is important, but even more so, the posture of a listener’s heart. “Even if you do all the right things in terms of skill and posture, if there is not care, concern, or desire to hear and understand the other person, then true listening is absent.” (44) Just watch an episode or an interview with Mr. Rogers and be watchful for not just his physical posture but the bend in his heart toward that person’s heart.
Another secret Kuhnley explores in The Mister Rogers Effect is “Pause and Think.” This secret embodies taking the time to get to know yourself, really know yourself and recognizing other people also need time and space to know themselves as well. Through discovery, wonderment and “the invisible essential,” Mister Rogers promoted self-awareness in “the margin that we have when we take our time.” (93)
Your own self-awareness, the invisible essential, helps you to notice other people. Kuhnley wraps up each secret with key takeaways which include, “Look past outward appearances to search for the rest of the story in each person – even yourself. Don’t judge what you see on the outside,” and “Have compassion for each person’s inside story, even if it is painful or uncomfortable. It’s okay to feel a range of emotions about it.” (100)
“Show Gratitude” is secret four, and while it seems like a simple concept, it is not always easy to do. I include it here, because I think it is the master key to unlocking the secrets Kuhnley has discovered. Through the research of Kuhnley and her team, they saw a repetitive theme of a grateful attitude and appreciation stretched and shared across the work of Fred Rogers. “Appreciation is often an expression of admiration and fondness; the glue that holds relationships together…” (107). “Each time Mister Rogers reminded us with the words, ‘You have made today a special day, just by your being you, ‘ he was expressing appreciation and adding to the number of positive interactions, creating a positive emotional atmosphere.” (109) What if we simply practiced gratitude each day, purposefully thinking about each person we come into contact with, choosing to express something positive and encouraging we see in that person, however brief our interaction? What could come of our personal relationships, but even more so, what of the small daily encounters with strangers? Imagine the impact on one life as each positive encounter adds up throughout a day.
These three secrets alone hold incredible power for humanity, especially in the world we find ourselves in today. Kuhnley’s book is timely and full of the wisdom of a childhood television icon. Our world would do well to take the time to listen, to pause and think and show gratitude, not to mention the other four secrets. The world would be forever changed. But to do this, we’ll have to set aside ourselves first. We will have to ask ourselves if we really want life to be better for everyone or just for ourselves. We will have to be vulnerable, introspective and generous with our real thoughts and feelings to get to the bottom and climb back up.
The Mister Rogers Effect is based on the actions and person of Fred Rogers, but at the heart of it all, for me, it’s about a time in life, when I was much younger. It’s about how I felt about myself and all the possibilities of life I had yet to discover. And that’s what I remember. Everything with Mister Rogers was an invitation to play, to wonder, to imagine, to just be exactly who I was, who I was meant to be, and who really, I still am. And to live out the legacy he left us all – to love our neighbor for who they are too.