For a generation raised by Mr. Rogers, does it pay to be a mensch?

Pictured: My son not wanting to share his pumpkin.

Every weekday morning before preschool, like millions of other American kids, I sat on our livingroom floor and watched Mr. Rogers on the family television. He taught me that I was special, and he taught me to be kind. His show, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood inspired children to have a generous heart, to learn about our world with an open mind, and to take care of our neighbors. The recent documentary about the real Mr. Rogers has sparked renewed interest in his life’s work, and it’s given us all a mirror to the values that shaped our generation.

As a Jewish child many of these values were echoed by my Rabbis and Jewish educators. Each Friday at Jewish day school we collected tzedakah and we learned about a different mitzvah of the week. Often these were themed by principle Jewish components like gimilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness) or tikun olam (repairing the world). The highest aspiration for our evolving identities was to become a tzadik in adulthood, a righteous individual, or in more common Yiddish – a mensh!

But in today’s reality, it’s often the bully who gets to the head of the class, the front of the boardroom and sometimes, even to his own desk in the Oval Office. I am acutely aware of this contradiction in my values vs. my cynicism because – I have a two year old. It seems most toddlers don’t like to share and that this is a typical age appropriate developmental milestone. When we’re at the park or on a playdate I’m constantly reminding him to “take turns” and “share”, but should he really give up what he wants to play with for the sake of another?

If he cries and stands up for his self-interest in holding onto his treasure of the moment, he sometimes wins. Sure it’s not a win win, because of course the other child loses, but it’s a win for him. And why should he have to sacrifice his truck or train? Shouldn’t I rather teach him to defend his personal interests?

When I was in business school I had group work in every class and I hated it. I am a naturally bossy person who always assumes I can do it all on my own and I felt having to work in a group was just extra unnecessary effort. I learned to get along and play nice and in hindsight it served me well in the workplace. But do you know who does best in the competitive reality of most executive office settings? Those who can play nice with their peers but make themselves look best to their boss, those who can naturally claim ideas as their own in a meeting and speak of accomplishments in a way that highlights their own contributions. Sometimes I wonder if I’d have more competitive confidence in adulthood if I watched more Nickelodeon and less Mr. Rogers growing up.

I’m not ready to abandon the values I was raised with, the ones supported by my Jewish belief system just yet…but I do worry about the dwindling role models for my son in politics, in business, and in celebrity culture who live a successful life and are good neighbors to those around them.

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