I celebrated the Fourth of July by watching a documentary about an American icon: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the story of Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers, from here on, since it feels really weird to call him by his first name). I remember watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a young child, and I enjoyed Idlewild Park’s (in Ligonier, PA) Neighborhood of Make-Believe trolley ride as an older child and even a teenager, but not until now have I understood the depth of what Mr. Rogers was trying to do through his show. I want to write about two aspects of the film that struck me in hopes that you, too, will see him as more than a geek who talked to puppets.
love and acceptance
There’s a clip in the documentary, which I know is not in context and may not represent the real tenor of the conversation, of some smug news commentators calling Mr. Rogers “evil” and blaming him for the sense of entitlement that is supposedly so pervasive among the younger generations today, because he told children they were special without having to try to be special. I’m not entirely convinced that Generations X, Y, and Z are really as entitled as conventional wisdom would have it, but that’s another topic. What I want to focus on is this: How could you look at Mr. Rogers’ sweet face and call him evil??? No, that’s not what I meant to say. Here’s my more objective argument: Those who blame Mr. Rogers for causing children to feel entitled weren’t really listening to his message. A message that led to entitlement would go something like this: “You are the best at everything you care to attempt. You deserve for the world to give you whatever you want.”
But that’s not what Mr. Rogers told children. He never talked about being “the best” because he didn’t believe life was a competition. He did tell children they were lovable and acceptable no matter what. There’s a clip in the documentary of Daniel Striped Tiger asking Lady Aberlin if there’s something wrong with him because he is different from everyone else. Lady Aberlin doesn’t say, “Well, of course you’re different because you’re better than everybody else.” In the song she sings to Daniel in response, she uses the simple word fine, saying something like, “I like you fine just the way you are.” Telling kids they are “fine” doesn’t lead to entitlement; it leads to security, which is essential to basic human development. If a person feels secure, accepted, and loved, that person is free to love others, live a moral and responsible life, and try to make the world a better place. Mr. Rogers talked about those things too.
And he never claimed that the world would give children whatever they wanted. He talked about the truth that the world is a hard place. He did episodes on death, divorce, and difficult current events. He also talked about how making mistakes is part of life, and how that’s okay. There’s a wonderful clip in the documentary of Mr. Rogers trying to stand up on a pogo stick. I don’t think he ever got on that blasted thing! But he didn’t berate himself; he just said, “This is hard!” and kept trying.
make-believe vs. real
There was a part in the documentary that was strange to me at first. It seems that Mr. Rogers got upset about the rash of children getting killed or injured by attempting to fly off a roof like Superman. He got so upset, in fact, that after he had briefly walked away from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to work on other projects, he decided to return to the show and do a whole week on the pretend-ness of superheroes. My first reaction was that he was over-reacting. Kids know the difference between reality and fantasy, right? But the youngest children, who were always Mr. Rogers’ main audience, don’t necessarily know that yet–hence the Superman accidents.
The morning after I watched the film, I started thinking about this in a new light. I thought about how much I’ve always appreciated the fact that my parents never told me that Santa Claus was real. Santa was always just a fun story in our house. I know that millions of children every year lose their faith in Santa Claus and grow up to be well-adjusted adults, but I know what a sensitive little kid I was, and I think that if I had gone through that experience, I may have had some serious confusion and even issues with trusting my parents. So I’m thankful that while my parents always encouraged me to use my imagination, they made a clear distinction between what’s real and what’s make-believe, just like Mr. Rogers did. After all, as someone in the documentary pointed out, Mr. Rogers himself never appeared at King Friday’s castle or X the Owl’s tree. His home in the real world (leaving aside the fact that it was on a set in a studio) was separate from the world of make-believe.
And Mr. Rogers showed us that we don’t have to escape into fantasy to find delight; the real world may be a hard and sometimes scary place, but it’s also a wonderful place, where you can visit a pencil factory, bounce on a pogo stick (if you can get on it!), and cool off your feet in a pool on a hot day. In fact, I think maybe one reason I get so much joy out of the simple acts of getting the mail and feeding fish is that I watched Mr. Rogers do those things every single day–with a smile. Maybe this is what he was talking about when he sang, at the end of every episode, “It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.”
Next week, I want to write about one more lesson that Mr. Rogers taught, but I’m going to do it in the voice of one of my characters.