Long Live Fred Rogers

mr_rogersIt’s been seven years since Fred Rogers died, so it’s not exactly a surprise that the era of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is waning on television. But the announcement that WMVS-TV (Channel 10) is discontinuing weekday broadcasts of “Mister Rogers”gives fresh reason to mourn his absence and praise what he did for several decades-worth of very young children. 

In 2001, Marquette University presented Mister Rogers with an honorary degree. I was a  reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time and I proposed going to Pittsburgh, Mister Rogers’ long-time home and the base for his programs, to do a profile story to run in conjunction with presentation of the degree.

 I don’t claim to have been professionally neutral in approaching this. My own children had watched the show almost daily when they were pre-schoolers and, overcoming my initial adult-based reaction, I had come to think the program was a work of genius. (I bet everyone who scoffs at that is not between three and five years old.)

If you looked at the show through a child’s eyes, it had very substantial content – over time, Mr. Rogers dealt with issues such as divorce, death, fear, loss, and a wide array of relationship matters. Sometimes very directly (“It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive” or “People like you just the way you are”) and sometimes through the context of what he did (the gentleness, the way his fantasy characters treated each other, good and bad), his character education messages were healthy, well developed, and (I hope) formative to millions of children.

I spent an evening watching the real Mister Rogers speak to a group of planetarium officials from around the country who had come to Pittsburgh to see a program his organization, Family Communications, created for teaching children about the planets and stars, and I spent the next morning in a leisurely interview with him. In person, he was – well, Mister Rogers. He didn’t have a desk in his office, but had a table and some comfortable chairs because that’s how he worked. The office was somewhat cluttered with papers, props, and memorabilia, including his sweater and sneakers and a hand-made wood plaque that hung above where he sat, with the Hebrew word “chesed” on it. I commented on the sign. He said it was a gift, and added that “chesed” means more than just kindness, the usual translation. It’s a whole approach to treating others, he said. He talked at length about what he tried to accomplish in his work and his life both in front of the camera and outside the studio. 

It was not his style to criticize others, so he drew contrasts between his show and others, particularly “Sesame Street,” carefully. He didn’t like the shows where the pacing is so fast, where the action moves from one thing to another every few seconds, where the volume and the frantic pace comes at a child so forcefully.

He wanted his programs – which were developed in conjunction with child psychologists – to appeal to the quieter, more thoughtful side of children. That pace which seems so sluggish to adults was just right for young minds, he thought. In his shows, it was rare for a camera angle to be held only a few seconds. Sometimes they lasted for several minutes, an eternity you’d never see in “Sesame Street.” That wasn’t because the production was less sophisticated. In fact, I’d argue the opposite.

Compared to nine years ago, when I talked to Mister Rogers, so many of the children’s television programs now have, if anything, even more wham-bam pacing, and even less of that gentle voice of someone talking seriously to a young child, right through the television screen. .

I’m not an expert, but I’d suggest that a lot of kids – and, ultimately, a lot of adults, a lot of schools, a lot of communities – would benefit from allowing that pensive, imaginative, gentle side of life to be nourished more. If Mister Rogers is fading down to appearing on local television only at 8:30 a.m. Sundays on Channel 10, maybe that puts the responsibility more on parents to find ways to grow that quiet side of kids, to be the one talking to kids seriously, eye to eye, about what is really on children’s minds. 

I hope parents who grew up on Mister Rogers will act on such thoughts. You don’t need a sweater and some hand puppets to be their Mister Rogers.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Melissa Greipp

    I think it’s really too bad that Mister Rogers is no longer on television. I wish someone would at least try to do a spin-off show to give this generation of kids an updated version of Mr. Rogers.

    I also wish that broadcasters would know that a large underground of parents exists who don’t let their children watch t.v. and who do believe that most current programming is bad for their children’s development.

    I must admit that I’m a fan of Dora, though.

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