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 and (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, I’m guessing those answers would be consistent as well: they’d want adults to be nice to them. To treat them with respect and kindness, even when they made mistakes — actually, especially when they made mistakes.
This awareness was famed kids television host and longtime vegetarian Fred Rogers’ calling card. From 1968 to 2001 the Presbyterian minister hosted “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” the kids show that’s now the subject of a new documentary and a forthcoming feature film starring Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers.
An overweight kid who was often bullied, Rogers turned to vegetarianism 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.
Teaching compassion and acceptance to our children is vital, especially in the modern world where hate lurks around every corner on the web, and depression and mental health issues abound. Compassion can easily start at the dinner table. We’re not going to eradicate meat or hate from the planet overnight, but we can bring about more compassion right now. We can teach children that what we put into our bodies matters as much as how we treat other bodies — we don’t let our children hit their friends, siblings, or pets, why would we let them hurt an animal? Yet most of the world’s population still consumes animal products daily, but have you ever stopped to imagine what it would be like if they didn’t? What kind of world can we create if compassion and kindness– not just for animals, but for our health and the planet–dictated the choices we made instead of the instant gratification that fuels our current consumption habits?
A growing body of research points to the benefits of a vegan diet for all stages of the life cycle. When we eat kinder, we are kinder. 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. We now live in a world where for the first time ever, poor diet choices are responsible for more deaths than starvation. There has to be a kinder way.
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.” His calm and centered tone, his unyielding patience, the way he listened and was genuinely interested in others acknowledged and allowed children to be “just the way you are” as his show’s theme song repeated for more than 30 years. His methods of communicating with respect and compassion at all times stood in stark contrast to how most adults treated children, and often, other adults. It’s no wonder that in the late 1960s when the show first launched scores of young people were rebelling against the establishment–young people rejecting the rules about women’s rights and black rights, or resisting the draft that would decide for young men if they would have to go to Vietnam and die for their country, whether they wanted to or not.
And take a look at the world today and it’s clear we are still shaking off the oppression of a system telling us what to do and think, like that we need milk for strong bones and meat for muscle, a system that enslaves and tortures billions of animals every year. It’s a level of bullying that would horrify Rogers. So would our abusive, unkind president, the powerful men in Hollywood manipulating and abusing women, Starbucks shutting down all of its stores to address racial profiling, and the senseless amount of mass shootings plaguing the nation.
It’s not hard to see why Rogers’ ethos is being revisited several times over. Compassion and kindness have fallen out of fashion it seems, even as the vegan diet becomes more mainstream. But if we can learn anything from the Mr. Rogers revival, it’s all in that quintessential theme song:
Since we’re together, we might as well say,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?