“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.” – Fred Rogers
I moved to the United States a little under three years ago. Shortly after my move, I continued meeting with people in spiritual direction. (These are times of listening to the ways how God's Spirit and the human spirit connect.) While I was used to listening with adults, I was also hoping to accompany children in this intentional way. I searched for resources that would give me tools and insights to better listen to children, and also started creating some of my own. I started collecting tactile "transitional objects" and creative materials to help children to express their inner lives.
One day, as usual, my husband inquired about what I was making. Without going into any detail about the "why" I simply said, "a rabbit ear", as that was the task in my hands at the time. But this time my husband's response stayed with me, "Of course, a rabbit year! What else? ... You are like a female version of Mr. Rogers." I didn't grow up watching "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and had no clue who he was, so my husband pulled up Mr. Rogers' face on internet for me and gave me a very brief bio. I remained intrigued by who this Mr. Rogers was (after being slightly offended that my husband had just compared me to an old man). Only much later have I come to realize how profound the connection between the practice of spiritual direction with children and Fred Rogers' ministry is.
I am far from being an expert in the work and life of Fred Rogers, but what I have read and heard so far is stunning. In this article, I highlight seven characteristics of compassionate, deep listening to children, drawing from the wisdom of an American children's television icon Mr. Rogers and the ages old practice of spiritual direction.
1. Space for Silence and Slowness
We know that listening for the often unspoken truths of our own lives requires time and silence. It is no different when we seek to listen to children’s inner lives. Fred Rogers knew the importance of silence, and his children’s program “Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'' is known for its slowness. Even in his public speaking he often requested the audience to join him in a moment of silence.
“I just feel that there isn’t enough silence, you know, and I’m always asking people if they can just give some silence.” – Fred Rogers, (quoted in the Simple Faith of Mister Rogers by Amy Hollingsworth.)
As a spiritual director, I consider making space for silence and “time to just be” as one of my most important tasks in creating safe, friendly conditions for the child’s soul to express itself. In practice this often looks like seemingly “idle” coloring or stringing of beads.
2. Remembering Our Own Childhood
Every adult who accompanies children in their spiritual lives, will be faced with their own childhood. Our childhood joys, wounds, images of God, experiences of church and authority figures, etc. will be triggered as we listen to children. Those who are committed to welcoming children need to be willing to revisit their childhood memories and work with their past pain. This work is not fast, nor will it ever fully be finished. We continue revisiting developmental tasks from our early life as we sit with children, and we are continuously invited to grow in our capacity to become compassionate listeners to our own childhood selves, as well as the child in front of us. Those who engage in spiritual conversations with children receive the invaluable gift of connecting with God with their childhood selves, which in turn opens doors for healing, wisdom, freedom, joy and compassion.
Rogers often talked about his childhood experiences in his program to children and encouraged parents to remember their own childhood.
“If parents can remember what it was like to be a child, they are going to be much more empathetic with their own children.” – Fred Rogers, (quoted in the Simple Faith of Mister Rogers by Amy Hollingsworth.)
3. Gift of Full Presence
“Whole-self listening is about being fully present to another. When we are listening with our whole selves to children, we are open in expectation of the wonder of the child’s life. In the body, whole-self listening looks like a still and attentive body and active verbal involvement in the sharing.” – Lacy Finn Borgo, Spiritual Conversations with Children
A child will sense when the adult is fully present and attentive to them. When we offer our full attention and whole-self listening to a child, we enable the child to open up. Our genuine interest shows that the child is worth our time and that their story matters to us. Rogers was keenly aware of the spiritual significance of this kind of transformative presence. And his presence left a mark on people.
“I remember looking into his eyes and knowing for the first time in my life that I had seen the face of Christ in another. His eyes expressed a warmth and compassion I had never before felt from another person, and they reached deep into my young soul. I never forgot that.”
– Amy Hollingsworth, the Simple Faith of Mister Rogers.
4. Dependency on the Holy Spirit
Those of us who listen to children as spiritual companions, attune to a conversation of three: the child, the adult (our own self) and the Holy Spirit. I, as a listening adult, am well aware of the fact that the Spirit is the One who most seeks to connect with the child and the child in turn responds to the Love they encounter. I am simply a host and a witness. Rogers also saw his role in children’s lives as a preparatory one.
“Fred sometimes referred to his program as “tending soil.” His role was to provide the soil, and he relied on the Holy Spirit to turn it into holy ground.” – Amy Hollingsworth, the Simple Faith of Mister Rogers.
How then, do we provide the tending soil that Rogers talks about? How do we become hospitable servants on the holy ground for children and God? In my experience the soil is largely prepared through the listener's own practice of cultivating a listening ear to the Spirit. Lacy Finn Borgo, a spiritual director and author describes this process as following,
“Listeners with children learn to listen to the Spirit in the silence of their own hearts as well as in the world around them, including the world of the child. “ – Lacy Finn Borgo, Spiritual Conversations with Children
5. Welcoming All Feelings
Adults often want to believe that children are happy all the time, but that of course is not the reality. Children experience real grief, worry, anger and fear, and urgently need adults in their lives who are able to welcome all their feelings, without the fear of being laughed at or told that their feelings are invalid.
“.... children are not always happy. They have the same existential anxieties we adults have, and at times this anxiety can be overwhelming. … all children express their pain and anxiety in ways that shout to adults if we have the ears to hear them.” – Jerome Berryman, Becoming Like a Child
In “Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'' all feelings were welcome and much time was spent talking, listening and singing about emotions, and the many ways how we can express feelings in ways that are not harmful to self or others.
“You know, that’s a gift that can be passed on for generations, … “the gift of knowing that it’s all right to express how you’re feeling.” – Fred Rogers, (quoted in the Simple Faith of Mister Rogers by Amy Hollingsworth.)
6. Students of Children
When we get the honor of listening to the sacred stories of a child’s life, we must receive the honor with humility, knowing that we only ever get to know it in part. The more I sit with children, the more I am in wonder of the mysterious ways they relate to God, self and others.
Children in general look to adults as their teachers and guides, and when we come alongside children in the interest of listening to their inner lives we must make an effort to reverse this expectation and take a posture of a learner. This requires a great deal of self-awareness and practice. For example, if a child asks me in a context of spiritual direction conversation for information about God or prayer, I have found it helpful to follow Jesus’ example of gently returning the question back to the child, “I wonder, what do you think…?” This helps the child to listen to their own soul and their own spiritual wisdom.
“Only after becoming aware of ourselves can we gladly set our judgmental self and good advice self aside to listen openheartedly to the child.” – Lacy Finn Borgo, Spiritual Conversations with Children
Rogers was a lifelong student of child development, childhood, his own childhood self and of the children whom he met.
7. A Parting Blessing Finally, as we listen to children with our authentic whole-selves, and welcome the whole child as an equal image-bearer of God, our natural response is to reflect back what we have witnessed in the child. We will speak back the truth about the child, especially what is eternal about them (Rogers' words). In a formal spiritual direction session this often looks like speaking a brief blessing over the child while looking them into eyes, holding their hand, and drawing a cross on their hand. Rogers ended his program every day with a similar ritual of speaking (or singing) a parting blessing to his "television friends" around the country.
“You’ve made this day a special day by just being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.”
When we listen to children on the school playgrounds, around kitchen tables, busses and church halls, my prayer is that we would learn to see the child in front of us through the eyes of God, and by doing so, may we become vessels of God’s compassion, love and affection to one another.
Resources: Spiritual Conversations with Children: Listening to God Together by Lacy Finn Borgo
The Simple Faith of Mr. Rogers: Spiritual Insights from the World’s Most Beloved Neighbor
by Amy Hollingsworth
Becoming Like a Child: The Curiosity of Maturity Beyond the Norm by Jerome W. Berryman
If you are curious to explore whether your child would like to experience spiritual direction with me, please don't hesitate to get in touch via the contact form below.