Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

My wife and I recently watched A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. We found the movie incredibly inspiring and therapeutic. It’s not a movie about how the television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was shot. It’s the story of how a jaded, emotionally wounded author changed his life after he came to know Mr. Rogers. It’s a movie about learning to understand what real love is. I can’t recommend it highly enough, but today I wanted to focus on a thought-provoking truth embodied by the story. This truth involves Mr. Rogers’ skill at interpreting behavioral issues in children.

When Children Speak with Actions Instead of Words

In one scene, Mr. Rogers is on the set of his television show. On this day, he is hosting a child and his parents who are visiting as part of the Make-A-Wish program. The boy is about five years old and he has a toy sword in his hand. With the sword, he is noisily banging the living daylights out of the floor and anything within reach. He isn’t making eye contact, interacting with Mr. Rogers or his parents, or taking any interest in the unique setting around him. The entire crew waits patiently while the boy bashes away.

The author mentioned above is also on set. He is flummoxed at the amount of time being spent on what is essentially a non-interaction. But here’s where we get to the meat of the scene: Mr. Rogers sees past the boy’s nonverbal behavior to what is underneath the behavior, and that is what he addresses. Gently, he tells the boy how strong he is to use the sword and how heavy it must be. The boy continues to bash about with his toy sword. But when Mr. Rogers tells the child that he must be strong on the inside too, the moment of connection is magic. The child grows still, almost transfixed, and then sets his sword aside and runs to hug Mr. Rogers. With those few simple words, Mr. Rogers gave the child the most important gift for any struggling child: hope.

The Root of Some Behavioral Issues

As a participant in the Make-A-Wish foundation, the boy had a life-threatening illness. Any child in those circumstances would be anxious, if not terrified. He would be doing everything he could think of to feel powerful or to feel any sense of control. And here’s the thing: they would probably not have the language skills to describe their complex feelings. They would be speaking with their actions, rather than with words. Mr. Rogers was the first adult to understand what this little boy was saying with his actions. The result? The child immediately felt safe and loved.

I’ve written many times about how children with dyslexia or other learning challenges often present with behavioral issues. (Dyslexia Articles) When a child feels stressed at not being able to perform academically, it shows up first as a behavioral issue. Parents and teachers frequently misinterpret this information, not knowing where or how to look for the root of the problem. Just like the child depicted in the movie, your child’s behavioral message could be, “I am afraid. I don’t know what to do or how to ask for help. I don’t even know if there is any help for what’s wrong with me.”

Interpreting Behavioral Issues in Children

By living his life the way he did and by relating to others the way he did through his television program, Fred Rogers taught generations of children that emotions are a normal part of life. He showed us that even when emotions are difficult, they can be understood and coped with. This is true for both children and adults. This movie teaches adults that even if we didn’t get what we needed as children, it’s never too late to learn healthy coping skills, and our lives will be much richer for it.

This movie teaches all of us that when it comes to human behavior, things are not always what they seem. And there’s always room for more love. So if you have observed puzzling or unexpected behaviors in your child or student, remember that it is likely the child has an underlying belief that is manifesting in their actions as a cry for help. Only when the true message of behavior is understood can things be addressed. Only then can parent and child find comfort and a way through.

Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. My books are available from Amazon and other online retailers.