COMMENTARY: Missing Mr. Rogers’ good old ways


I grew up with the TV show “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.” I was 2-years-old when the show started airing on PBS in 1968, and I was a devoted viewer soon after. In every show, he would enter the house, change into slippers and a sweater and invite us into his neighborhood.

A core lesson of the show was that we should all strive to be neighbors. As we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first nationally distributed episode of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” earlier this month, this advice rings true now more than ever because it helps us to understand how we want to treat the other members of our society.

Sociologist Alan Fiske defined the three major types of relationships that characterize the kinds of relationships we engage in throughout our lives: Family, neighbors and strangers.

We spend the most time with family members. We celebrate holidays and birthdays. We keep them apprised of our daily activities. We accept family members for who they are. And in most cases, we also don’t really keep score in transactions with family. Parents devote a lot of time and energy to their children without expecting an equal expenditure in return. A spouse might taking care of an ailing partner for years knowing that the effort will never be repaid.

In contrast, most people in your life are strangers.

You don’t know them well. You don’t engage in deep conversations with them. When you have a transaction with a stranger, you settle up right away. You can’t borrow a cup of sugar from the store; you pay immediately. If you get a flat tire on the highway and someone stops to help, you might thank him by offering a $20 bill.

In between are neighbors who you have conversations with, celebrate some events, see regularly and develop a trusted relationship with.

When you engage in transactions with neighbors, you settle up in the long run. You can borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor, but you better bring over a slice of the banana bread you baked.You wouldn’t whip out a $20 bill to thank your neighbors for helping you fix a flat, but you might drive their kids to school or cut their grass. And you are keeping score. A neighbor who consistently takes and never gives ultimately gets cut out from the neighborhood.

Not all neighbors live close by. Some of them are work colleagues or friends on social media.

These days, business often sets our ideal for relationships. Experts tell us we should treat government, health care and education more like a business. But businesses are structures that are set up to create transactions among strangers. Exchanges between businesses and their customers assume

that the two parties are strangers. Businesses set up contracts with each other to specify what must be done by each party so that they can settle up in the moment.

What we really need are more neighbors.

We need people with whom we have covenants — not contracts — agreements to treat one another with respect. To trust that the actions we take now will meet with equal value over the long term. Of course, being a neighbor means actually following through on obligations. You can’t remain a neighbor unless you participate to the best of your ability.

So Mr. Rogers was right. A civil society is one that is based on the principles of the neighborhood. More of us need to get to know the people in our world. Celebrate the good times with them. Give what you can with the expectation that you will receive in kind in the long run. Treat the people around you with his invocation, “Please won’t you be my neighbor?”