Who was Fred McFeely Rogers? The answer differs depending on who you ask. For some, he was merely a comforting presence on television, for others he was like a folk hero, and for even more he was something resembling a living saint. He probably would have kindly refuted those latter two distinctions, which is a testament to the quality of Rogers’ character.
He was not a showman, he didn’t wear a costume or, in his own words, “a silly hat.” No, the amazing thing about Mister Rogers was that there was no discernible difference between the man we saw when the cameras were on and the man we saw when they were off. He was, to put it simply, an extraordinary American.
I’ve always felt that I don’t have to put on a funny hat or jump through a hoop to have a relationship with a child.
It’s no wonder that a new documentary centered on his life and achievements has been in the works for some time now. In honor of his legacy, we reflect on the five (of many) lessons that Mister Rogers taught us.
1. Emotions are natural
You can’t fight what you feel. In fact, fighting your feelings tends to amplify them. What many of us have had to learn (or still have to learn, no judgment) is that emotions are not unspeakable, unforgivable impulses. It was Mister Rogers who told us that “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.”
2. How to discuss difficult subjects
Did you know that Mister Rogers produced a primetime special on how to talk to children about The Kennedy Assassination? How about his episode on divorce? Or death? In Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, these topics weren’t taboo. He was able to respectfully discuss all kinds of issues with his viewers in a way that was meaningful and emotionally healthy. He never condescended, he never minced words. He met his viewers where they were and told them that everything was going to be okay, even if it didn’t feel like it.
3. How to be patient
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood wasn’t like other children’s programs of the era. It wasn’t fast-paced, it didn’t feature slapstick gags. Fred Rogers’ tone was calm, deliberate, some might say even therapeutic. His speech was so careful and evenly spaced that it often encouraged a kind of verbal back-and-forth between Rogers and his younger audience. It might strike you as no surprise to find that his program had a net beneficial effect on the behavior of young viewers. A study conducted by scientists at Washington State University found that children of all behavioral backgrounds tended towards positive reinforcement and social contact after just a week of viewing his program.
“These observations consisted of the frequency of the children’s giving of positive reinforcement and punishment to other children and to adults in the preschool. The children’s social contacts with other children and with adults were also measured. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” significantly increased the giving of positive reinforcement to, and social contacts with, other children and with adults in the preschool.”
Fred Rogers wasn’t just an entertainer, he was dedicated to the general well-being of children. He was a deep believer in monitoring and aiding their behavioral development and wrote his program to their utmost benefit. He was basically an emotionally stable Willy Wonka.
4. The Importance of Unconditional Care
At the end of almost every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers would sing a song called “I like you just the way you are.” This decision wasn’t arbitrary. Rogers very firmly believed that a child who knows they are cared for will be open to caring for others. In his 2001 commencement speech at Dartmouth College, he said:
Well, what is essential about you? And who are those who have helped you become the person that you are? Anyone who has ever graduated from a college, anyone who has ever been able to sustain a good work, has had at least one person and often many who have believed in him or her. We just don’t get to be competent human beings without a lot of different investments from others.
If any of the folktales are to believed about Fred Rogers (and full disclosure, we believe them all), he invested heavily in everyone who crossed his path – both children and adults alike. He believed in caring for people regardless of anything else, and his behavior reflected that. We can’t help but think of when, after a blind viewer wrote to Rogers about how she would get distressed if he didn’t mention feeding his fish on the show, he began to mention it aloud every single episode afterward.
5. He taught us to look for the helpers
Rogers was no stranger to adversity, difficulty or turbulence in his time. Something that is really amazing – a testament to the work that he did, the philosophy he practiced – is found in a quote of his that circulates pretty regularly:
“ When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
No matter how bad it gets, no matter the scale or scope of the tragedy that may strike, there will always be helpers. Fred McFeely Rogers was one such helper, and his passing left a hole in the American cultural patchwork that can still be felt today. It’s safe to say you could do well to remember him with a ten second moment of silence, (he was a big fan of those). Fred Rogers’ legacy lives on in the form of The Fred Rogers Company which produces educational programming for PBS in the spirit of Rogers’ work.
You’d also do well to remember that no matter what, Fred Rogers liked you just the way you are.