He is best known for what he meant to children. That was, after all, what Fred Rogers’s life and career were all about – every song he sang, every puppet he voiced, every considered word he spoke on his beloved television program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Rogers was for kids.
But he was for parents, too. For the adults who sat beside their little ones and watched the soft-spoken man in his handmade cardigan sweater model what communication with children should look like. For the grown-ups who turned to his words time and again for advice about how to help their children through difficult times in their lives or in the society around them.
Which might explain why Rogers has been having a moment recently – or, maybe, why his moment never really ended. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” emerged in 1968 as a subtly radical and resonant new force in children’s TV programming, and its influence has carried through to present day. Legions of adults greeted the trailer for the forthcoming biopic “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” – starring Tom Hanks as Rogers – by flooding the Internet with sobbing-face emoji.
The hearts and tear ducts of Rogers’s fans had scarcely recovered from celebrations of the 50th anniversary of his TV debut, an occasion marked by a PBS special, a commemorative postage stamp and the release of the critically acclaimed documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” which raked in more than $22 million at the domestic box office and became the top-grossing biographical documentary in American history.
Rogers has endured as a timeless oracle against a backdrop of ever-shifting parenting philosophies and cultural trends in an age when prevailing advice and expert recommendations are so frequently revised or revoked.
Though he offered specific suggestions in numerous books for parents – about how to support kids through experiences ranging from first haircuts to the loss of a pet to divorce – the root of his wisdom was far more existential and eternal, less about rigid rules to follow and more about what it really means to nurture young life in a complicated world.
“If the day ever came when we were able to accept ourselves and our children exactly as we and they are, then I believe we would have come very close to an ultimate understanding of what ‘good’ parenting means,” he wrote in his book, “Mister Rogers Talks With Parents.”
His inclusive, accepting approach elicited “utter and complete trust,” said Nicole Cliffe, a writer, mother of three and parenting advice guru for Slate’s “Care and Feeding” column, in an email. “He didn’t tell you how to parent,” Cliffe wrote.
“He just treated children as worthy of your full attention. Which is very hard to provide, today more than ever. I’m terrible at it. Mister Rogers is constantly reminding me to put down my phone and look at them and hear the entirety of what they have to say to me.”
Each episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” offered parents a template for how to interact with the young people in their lives: Here was a person who exuded patience, who was thoughtful about the words he chose, the tone of his voice, the way a child’s imagination might interpret what was happening around them.
“I think he was superb at telling parents that things that seem small to them, like moving houses – where you, the parent, are tremendously busy and flustered with the process – are actually cataclysmic for kids if not treated as the big deal they are,” Cliffe wrote. “He was the get-down-on-the-floor-and-relate guy. He was about asking your children questions.”
Matthew Cordell, a Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book author and illustrator from Chicago, remembers being mesmerized by “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as a young child. Ten years ago, he found himself transfixed by the show once again as he cared for his newborn daughter at home after his wife returned to work.
“It just hit me in a whole different way,” Cordell said. “Growing up watching it was one thing, when he was actually speaking directly to you as a child. But then watching it as an adult was a completely different experience, and I was really blown away by how calming it was, how sincere he was and how quiet, in a world where everything is so loud and fast, and everyone is trying to grab that short amount of attention that people have these days.”
Cordell was inspired to learn more about Fred Rogers, and he eventually decided to write and illustrate a book about his life. “Hello, Neighbor!” will be published in May. Seeing his 10-year-old daughter and his 6-year-old son enjoy the same show he loved as a kid “has been a really neat, circular experience,” Cordell said.
“I feel like the show is very geared toward children and parents. He raises a lot of questions and situations that are uncomfortable for families – sadness, loss, things that are not always so easy to talk to our children about. He shows you how to introduce children to difficult topics.”
Consider Rogers’ popular song “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel,” which describes the impulses a child might experience when they’re angry, and then guides them toward a sense of calm and control.
“His goal was to help children learn to manage anger and to develop self-regulation and find ways to express all their feelings so that they don’t keep them bottled up,” said Roberta Schomburg, interim executive director of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media. “But watching him sing that song – it’s a course in child development for the parents.”
There was a purity to Rogers’s message, Schomburg said, a sense of gentle comfort that might explain why the recent revival of his legacy has been met with such enthusiasm. “I think because of the time in which we live, where so many more images are available to children, when you think about what’s available on most people’s television, what’s available on various devices, I think children and adults are just bombarded with a lot of negativity right now,” she said.
Rogers’s show premiered in a notably dark and violent year in American history, and, in the aftermath of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, he recorded a special program for parents.
“The best thing in the world is for your children to be included in your family ways of coping with the problems that present themselves anytime, but particularly now in this very difficult time in our nation,” he said.
He offered a few suggestions: Some families might process tragedy by participating in public ceremonies or vigils. Others might want to take a long walk together. Comfort could be as simple as an embrace, he said: “Maybe just a strong arm around the body of a small child as you rock.”
That was the first time he filmed a message directed specifically at parents, Schomburg said. The last time came decades later, near the end of his life, on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In his final recording at the studio where he had filmed his show, Rogers addressed the adults who were once among his first young audiences, those who were now caring for children of their own.
“I’m just so proud of all of you who have grown up with us. And I know how tough it is some days to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead,” he said. “But I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were much younger: I like you just the way you are.”
He spoke slowly, as always; slower still when he emphasized the words he felt were most important. “And what’s more, I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe,” he said.
Then he arched his thick gray eyebrows above his spectacles and smiled just slightly: “It’s such a good feeling to know that we’re lifelong friends.” Fred McFeely Rogers passed away from stomach cancer on Feb. 27, 2003, in Pittsburgh. Mister Rogers was 74,
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