If we could ask our four-year-old selves what they most wanted from adults, I’m guessing our answers would all be rather consistent: (vegan) ice cream at least three times a day and lots of (rescue) puppies would surely top the list. But if we dug a bit deeper about how those young and vulnerable kids wanted adults to talk to them, those answers would likely be consistent as well: they’d want adults to be nice to them. To be patient. And to treat them with respect and kindness, even when they made mistakes — actually, especially when they made mistakes.
This awareness was the calling card of famed children’s television host Fred Rogers. From 1968 to 2001 the Presbyterian minister hosted “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” the kids show that’s now the subject of a documentary and a feature film starring Tom Hanks.
An overweight kid who was often bullied, Rogers became a calm and supportive voice of validation. There was no pretense or hook. He was every bit the personality on and off the screen. And his commitment to compassion eventually turned him vegetarian in his mid-forties, shortly after the show started airing. “It’s hard to eat something you’ve seen walking around,” he said. He didn’t push a vegetarian agenda on his show but he did promote compassion and acceptance. And that philosophy may be the reason we’re seeing so many people moving toward eating fewer animals today.
A Message of Compassion
Rogers’ approach to speaking with children was revolutionary. “Love is at the root of everything,” he said, “all learning, all relationships — love or the lack of it.” With his calm and centered tone, he reminded children to be “just the way you are.”
His respectful and compassionate communication stood in stark contrast to how most adults treated children, and often, other adults. In the late 1960s when the show first aired scores of young people were rebelling. They were angry. Young people were standing up for women’s rights and black rights. Many were resisting the draft.
Take a look at the world today and it’s clear we have new battles underway. But we’re still also shaking off the oppression of those decades-old systems telling us what to do and think. That goes for diet, too. Like the myths that we need milk for strong bones and meat for muscle. Those products come from systems that enslave and torture billions of animals every year. It’s a level of bullying that would horrify Rogers. More than 100 billion animals are killed every year for food. Raising animals for meat, eggs, and dairy is the biggest cause of greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, and the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Feminists have been called out for supporting the dairy and egg industries, which suppress and rape female animals. We now live in a world where, for the first time ever, poor diet choices are responsible for more deaths than starvation. And a growing body of research points to the benefits of a vegan diet for all stages of the life cycle — for both physical and mental health.
But Rogers knew that when we eat kinder, we are kinder.
It’s no wonder we’re desperate to conjure Rogers now more than ever. Compassion and kindness have fallen out of fashion it seems, even as the gentler and kinder vegan diet becomes more mainstream. But if we can learn anything from the Mr. Rogers revival, it’s all in that quintessential theme song,“it’s a beautiful day for a neighbor.” No matter what species.