Fred Rogers, AKA Mr. Rogers, was bullied growing up. He described himself as a sickly, chubby boy. Peers called him Fat Freddy, and he struggled to fit in. His parents were very overprotective, especially because of being the wealthiest family in his small town. He had a chauffeur drive him to school and pick him up for lunch and after school each day. He always felt different because of his severe asthma and his status as the ‘rich kid’. Several factors helped Fred to overcome his adversities.
Early on, Fred did not want to voice his feelings for fear he’d be labelled a bad boy. He remembers not knowing it was okay to feel angry when bullied because adults had told him to, “Ignore the bullies and just let on you don’t care and then nobody will bother you.” Gradually, he refused to accept that pretending not to care about teasing would alleviate his pain and loneliness.
Music became his emotional refuge growing up. “I was always able to cry or laugh or say I was angry thru the tips of my fingers on the piano. I would go to the piano even when I was 5 years old and start to play how I felt. It was very natural for me to become a composer.”Fred sought out stories of other people who were poor in spirit and felt for them too.
Fred also spent countless hours in his bedroom playing with his puppets and using his imagination. His friend Peggy came home with him for lunch every day. They played in the attic where Fred entertained her with puppets and marionettes.
But it was in high school that Fred found his confidence. A popular football player, Jim Stumbaugh, had to spend a few weeks in the hospital, and Fred’s mom arranged for Fred to bring him homework and tutor him. The two boys became friends for life, and Jim helped Fred integrate socially back at school. Fred became confident, the stucco president, editor of the school paper, an actor in theater, and a great student. He was well-liked, dedicated to schoolwork and his piano. Mr. Rogers relates that his new football friend Jim told kids that Fred was a good guy, and “That made all the difference in the world for me. What a difference one person can make in the life of another. It’s almost as if he had said, “I like you just the way you are.”
Any child who is being teased, bullied, or excluded experiences a range of emotions: sad, hurt, anger, confusion, fear. They need healthy outlets to express all of them so that emotions don’t build up and cause more problems. For Mr. Rogers, it was his music and piano. Other kids use journaling, writing stories or songs or poetry. Or they channel their emotions thru artwork or music.
Like Fred’s mother, I encourage parents to ask teachers to pick out a classmate or two that they feel their child might connect with most easily. Spending time out of school with that child strengthens that friendship, providing protection at school and an end to isolation. Just having one friend can make all the difference in the world for a lonely child.
I agree with Mr. Rogers that just ignoring bullies doesn’t work. I teach girls at my retreats and camps how to not give their power away to others by using a concept called ‘tomato words’. Click on this link for my blog explaining how to teach kids this tool. Parents tell kids to ignore the bully and walk away, but kids have already allowed the words to hurt them. I want kids to never let words hurt them and to know that they are always in charge of their feelings and reactions to teasing.
Fred Rogers used the challenging experiences in his childhood to craft a career advocating for children and giving their needs a voice. Use his story to guide children to overcome and prevent bullying and to gain strength and determination from their adversity.