Why Mister Rogers (Still) Matters
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of public television’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The milestone will bring with it a major book, a feature film (starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers), and even a U.S. postage stamp. When one considers all the ephemera of children’s programming, the ongoing cultural resonance of this show is staggering. Fifty years from now will anyone note the anniversary of Gumball or Clarence? I doubt it. So why does Mr. Rogers, even long after his death, still beckon us into his neighborhood?
Fred Rogers, after all, is hardly the sort of person one would choose to “connect with the next generation.” He was a Presbyterian minister, of all things. Those cardigan sweaters and loafers would have seemed out-of-date in all fifty of the years since the first broadcast aired. Mister Rogers had no zaniness or charisma or celebrity pull that one would audition if one were looking for someone to speak to children.
But that is why he persists in the public imagination. Mister Rogers was never “Fred.” He was Mister Rogers. He was a grown-up, and that’s exactly what children loved.
That’s the part of Fred Rogers’s work that is probably the easiest to misunderstand. One can listen to the songs he sang… “It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive…” or “I like you just the way you are…” and assume that Rogers was a live-action version of a sappy self-esteem curriculum. Rogers, though, would talk to children about the darkest topics possible, addressing children’s fears directly, whether those fears were about being sucked down the drain in a bathtub or parents’ divorcing or the death of grandparents. He even helped children think through terrorist attacks and war, in a way that neither waved away the darkness of violence nor surrendered to fear or anger.
When one listens to those old broadcasts, what is striking is that Rogers, while not startling children with graphic details inappropriate for them, deals honestly both with the children and the subject he’s addressing. There is reassurance, but it seems to be an earned reassurance—the reassurance of one who is a diplomat from the world of grown-ups.
I think often of the account I read of a man who grew up in extreme neglect and abuse but found a few minutes of respite every day when he entered Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. “When he said, ‘I like you just the way you are,’ it was as though he was speaking directly to me.” Rogers transcends generational differences and media trends because he had a unique ability to break through the fourth wall of the screen, to seem to be actually talking to his audience, to actually almost see them.
The idea of being seen, of being acknowledged, is almost universally recognized by early childhood development scholars as necessary for the healthy emotional and mental growth of a child. As a Christian, I think this need points not only to the foundations of nature, but beyond nature. At the baptism of Jesus, the Father’s voice announces, “You are My beloved Son, and with you I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).
Children were drawn to Rogers not because he was a spectacle; he wasn’t. They were drawn to him because an adult seemed to look over that glass divide and say to them that their value was not in their striving and doing and buying and consuming. “It’s you I like. It’s not the things you wear. It’s not the way you do your hair. But it’s you I like. The way you are right now. The way down deep inside you, not the things that hide you. Not your toys; they’re just beside you…But it’s you I like.”
Sappy? Yes. Awkward? Kind of. Mister Rogers would probably plead guilty to all of that. But, for at least fifty years of children, he never seemed to be selling anything. In an era in which whirl is king, Fred Rogers provided a little vision of stability. He had the same house, the same mailman, the same puppets, and in his personal life, the same wife. In a world of fractured neighborhoods and splintered families, who can honestly say that we don’t need to see, somewhere, that such is possible?
In 1997, Rogers received an Emmy Award for lifetime achievement. His acceptance speech went viral, and is widely viewed even now. What made it so was not some sort of explosive antic, but his request to the crowd to take ten seconds, in silence (“dead air” in television-speak) to think about the people in their lives, living or dead, who had believed in them, helped them along the way. Those ten seconds were filled with images of world-renowned celebrities wiping away tears. That, I think, is why Mister Rogers still matters.
His program reminded us that we are not alone. He reminded us that no matter how we display and act tough, however much we “win,” that what we really want is to be known and to be loved. Mister Rogers never seemed to care whether people thought he was old-fashioned or irrelevant or not “edgy enough.” He remembered what it was like to be a child, but he had loved being a grown-up, and he knew we could too.
We are looking, ultimately, for the weight of the glory of the kingdom of the reigning Christ. But, sometimes, along the way, it’s good to be reminded that, despite all the brokenness and loneliness of a fallen world, it can be a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
Photo: Fred Rogers, the host of the children's television series, 'Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood,' sits for a promotional portrait in this picture from the 1980's. 'Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood' will broadcast its last new episode August 31, 2001 it was announced August 30 in a statement by Rogers from Nantucket, Massachusetts. Rogers died at the age of 74 February 27, 2003 at his Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania home. He had been suffering from stomach cancer.
Photo courtesy: Family Communications Inc./Getty Images