Ask a Gen X’er if they remember Mr. Rogers and they’ll likely launch into assorted recollections of the soft-spoken children’s TV show host putting on and taking off sweaters and sneakers in what seems like slow motion. But there’s tons more to Mr. Rogers than his wardrobe choices, as “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” the upcoming documentary about his life and work, attests.
Born and raised in the Pittsburgh-area, the documentary hints feelings were considered obtrusive in his childhood home, leaving a young Fred Rogers “too scared to use words.” Adding to what made him withdrawn were some serious illnesses and some serious bullying. To cope, he channeled his feelings into his piano and become quite an adept musician and developed a tremendous empathy and compassion for children as an adult.
After a stint in seminary school (he became ordained as a TV evangelist), the launch of a new radio station, WQED, in his hometown, inspired him to create his own brand of comedic original programming for children — with a budget of $30. The playfully violent cartoons he witnessed disturbed him, and he felt it of the utmost importance to create a safe space on television where children’s feelings could be discussed and processed. He believed what we saw or heard on screen would be part of who we became, and aimed to reach as many children as he could with messages of love, friendship, tolerance and acceptance.
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What he created was an incredibly popular PBS show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which had a huge influence on Gen X and Gen Y children — and it just turned 50. It aired for four decades and was completely successful in creating children’s programming that acknowledged their complex range of feelings — both positive and negative. Here’s four life lessons we learned from this incredibly moving documentary — and from Fred Rogers himself — that will stay with us for a lifetime.
Love your neighbor, love yourself
“Love thy neighbor” was always Rogers’ MO: He’d even weigh himself each day and smile that he always came in at 143, his own personal numerology code for I love you (just count the letters). And “won’t you be my neighbor” weren’t just lyrics — it was said in the documentary it’s an invitation for someone to be close to you — and those words carried Rogers in real life. Case in point was one of the show’s integral characters, Officer Clemons, a black police officer who lived nearby. With racism and segregation still plaguing our country in the late 60s, the friendship between Rogers and Clemons was genuine and equal both onscreen, and off. Though Clemons was gay — and sadly closeted for a long time — he was embraced by Rogers as a true friend for life.
Stand up for what you believe in
'If we in public television can make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.'
In the 1969, President Nixon threatened to cut all funding for PBS — essentially displacing “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Facing a skeptical Congress, Fred Rogers (a Peabody award winner) testified to save PBS, explaining how the show provided children with gentle, less violent content than the cartoons of the time. By modeling kind behavior, children learn to manage their “inner drama” and “the kind of anger that arises in simple family situations.” “I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique,” he testified. “I end the program by saying, ‘You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.’ If we in public television can make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.” That testimony secured the network with $20 million dollars in funding. It just goes to show, sometimes speaking up can make all the difference.
Listen to your children
Rogers believed that children have deep feelings the way everyone else does, and his work was a testament to the importance of listening to them, validating them and responding to them. He wasn’t afraid to mine unpleasant topics, such as war, death and divorce, for teachable moments. For example, he saw a sad news story about how a child jumped out of a building while pretending to be a superhero. In response, he created a segment to address the issue, acknowledging the lure of flight while guiding children toward safer ways to play superhero. By listening, he understood the real risk behind these depictions was how appealing ‘flying’ with a cape might seem to a kid when no one else did. Another example: Soon after “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” launched in 1968, America entered the Vietnam War. The fears and concerns his puppets gave voice to back then seem oddly prophetic today — there’s even a reference to building a wall to keep intruders out. Rogers’ used his puppets to help kids work through their feelings of fear, frustration and anger about war, reassuring them the best he could along the way.