Talking With Mr. Rogers About Children and Giving

Fred Rogers, known to millions of young children and parents who have visited “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on Public Television over the past three decades, has taken on a new subject. Rogers, a Presbyterian minister who has reached out through television and other media to help children — and parents — deal with sensitive subjects like prejudice, death, divorce and disability, has written a book called “The Giving Box” to teach children about giving.

Published by Running Press, the book comes with a small metal box with a slot for coins. “The Giving Box” is designed to give parents and children an opportunity to talk about and develop a tradition of giving. We spoke with Fred Rogers, who has cautions about the ways parents teach their children about philanthropy.

OIP: What was the impetus for writing The Giving Box?

MR. ROGERS: The people at Running Press came to us with the idea. They wanted to us to help them encourage families to promote charity and compassion in their homes. They began with the Jewish concept of the “tzedaka box” and asked if I could write a book to go along with it.

OIP: Do you think young children are naturally inclined to give to others? If so, is it a trait that diminishes unless it’s encouraged? Or is it something that needs to be taught to youngsters by parents, teachers, or caregivers?

MR. ROGERS: While children tend to be egocentric, some children are more naturally giving. And there are times when some children seem to need to “hold on.” That’s one of the things we wanted to offer in the first chapter of the book — to give parents insights into the different ways young children may think of “giving and receiving” — and how that develops as they grow.   As far as your question about “teaching” those values to children, there’s an old Quaker saying, “Attitudes are caught, not taught.” When children see that we adults are gracious receivers of what they give to us — their drawings or little gifts or kind words or even their “successes” at toileting — then they’re more likely to want to be people who continue to give … and who are gracious receivers themselves.

OIP: What are some ways young people can be encouraged toward philanthropy?

MR. ROGERS: One thing that concerns me is I know how tempting it could be to encourage generosity by asking children to help “the needy” or those who are “less fortunate.” That kind of thinking divides people into “us” and “them” and doesn’t necessarily contribute to a sense of “neighborliness.”

In our book, we wrote about our 30th anniversary on PBS when we invited public stations to start their own Neighborhood Sweater Drive that we invited public stations. We sent the stations a separate message:

“All of us at some time or other need help. Whether we’re giving or receiving a sweater, each one of us has something valuable to bring to this world. That’s one of the things that connects us as neighbors — in our own way, everyone is a giver and a receiver.”

It is far better to say to our children that we are gathering sweaters for people who are cold and don’t have the money to buy warm clothing rather than “for the needy” or “less fortunate.” It may also help to let our children know that people who have money to donate or who have a sweater to give to a clothing drive have other kinds of needs. And those who receive the money or sweater or food have other strengths.
As different as we are from one another, as unique as each one of us is, we are much more the same than we are different. That may be the most essential message of all, as we help our children grow towards being caring, compassionate, and charitable adults. Yes, everyone has needs and everyone has something of value to give!
In the chapter about “Using the box,” we offered some specific ideas for families to establish rituals for when to put coins in the box. We also wrote about a family we know that gives their children an allowance, of which they save 1/3, give 1/3 for charity, and they can spend 1/3. We suggested that parents let their children know when they are making donations — so much of that is done with a check or credit card, when children aren’t around. We also know some families who talk about different charitable causes that might interest their children and let the children select where to send the donation.

There are also many ways children can be philanthropic that don’t have to do with money. For example, they can make “coupons” offering to help with things they can do (like give a parent some quiet time on a weekend morning or read a book to a younger brother or sister … or give a hug). They can also become involved when the family volunteers at a Soup Kitchen or visits someone who is homebound. They can befriend a child who has a disability.

Hearing us talk about how good it makes us feel to be able to help others can go a long way towards making our charitable example “contagious.”

In “The Giving Book,” we’ve also included multi-cultural folktales and fables. Stories are the age-old way people passed on values and traditions to children, and it’s no wonder. Stories can be a wonderful way for us to begin talking with our children about philanthropy, values, kindness, generosity, and compassion.