Happy 50th to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and our favorite neighbor.
A documentary and a commemorative stamp are just two of the many works of art marking the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood this year. In 2019 we’ ll also be blessed with a Tom Hanks–starring biopic of Mister Fred Rogers’ life. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which began airing in February 1968, ran 895 episodes. That kind of staying power and our continued devotion illustrate that we still value the lessons inherent in the show. Because of political and social parallels between the beginning of Mister Rogers’ TV career and now, his message still resonates in the current climate.
Funding for public broadcasting has recently been threatened, as it was in 1969 when Mister Rogers testified before Congress to advocate for support. In the video of his testimony that’s been making the rounds on the internet again, he called his work “a neighborhood expression of care” and said, “This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child.” Congress granted the funding, and Mister Rogers went on for over three decades with his simple yet meaningful show that let young Americans explore who they were and who they could become.
But you may have seen another old video clip from YouTube going around as well — the one where news commentators referred to Mister Rogers as an “evil man,” citing research that blamed him for ruining the now “entitled” younger generation. They harangued him for his two core principles: “There’s no person in the whole world like you,” and “I like you just the way you are.” A pundit espoused the position that telling children they’re special means they won’t work hard or strive to be more. But the position missed Rogers’ core philosophy, which made his show successful over more than three decades and garnered him a Peabody Award, multiple Emmy Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom: “The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile.”
It’s easy to look back on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and assume it was a quaint show that was too innocent to have any appeal today. But this was the late ’60s, when the news of the day was extremely serious. While the show was meant to be a comfortable, safe and familiar environment amid the usual children’s fare of fast-paced constant distraction and noise, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood never shied away from reality.
When tragedy continually struck as the years went on, Mister Rogers worried that children seemed to be losing all hope. His mission was to help children connect with and understand the world around them. And he did it by telling the truth to children, in terms they could understand. Mister Rogers was able to do so by acknowledging a child’s fears and feelings, and he spoke to children on their level, never patronizing them. As he spoke naturally into the camera, it was easy for anyone watching to feel he was talking directly to them.
“When we talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary,” he said. Mister Rogers Neighborhood created a sense of community, covering subjects everyone was dealing with. Mister Rogers would find a topic that might be bothering children, and the show would come at it from all directions. He taught children that feelings were “mentionable and manageable.”
The first season of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood started with the concept of escalating war and patrolling borders to keep people out — topics that resonate today. And he defined terms like “divorce” or even “assassination,” after Robert Kennedy was killed — because he felt children needed to understand why their parents were sad. When segregationists forced Black families out of public swimming parks, he invited the Black neighborhood cop to join him in his kiddie pool. Obviously, these are issues we’re still tackling today.
To understand where the concepts for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gestated, you have to look at Rogers’ childhood. As an extremely shy, chubby child, he was often bullied by his classmates, an experience that would affect him profoundly. Though he would retreat into making music and playing with his puppets, later hallmarks of his show, he said nothing made him madder than when someone demeaned someone else. He believed everyone deserved dignity and respect. Mister Rogers really believed we were all in one large neighborhood, and that we should do something — even if only to offer a kind word — to lift up our neighbor.
The ways adults responded to Rogers’ childhood bullying also defined him in many ways. They advised him to “act like it doesn’t bother you” and “just let on that you don’t care and they’ll leave you alone.” Even as a child, he knew that was wrong. He wanted permission to be angry. And he thought the bullies treated him that way because they couldn’t see past his weight and his shyness. This led to his belief that everyone should be loved for who they are: “As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has — or ever will have — something inside that is unique to all time.” We still need Mister Rogers’ wisdom in the tech age, when bullying has grown much more vicious and dangerous, with a documented correlation between cyberbullying and child suicides.
Mister Rogers was also a deeply religious man and an ordained minister. He attributed his leaving the seminary to go into television to the fact that he hated TV. He often told a story of how he watched a program in which people were hitting each other with pies, and he thought: “There’s some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen.” While not preaching religion specifically, he did speak to a set of values that were the backbone of his faith: peace, love, generosity and honesty. He spoke to a kindness that many seemed to have forgotten.
Often after tragedies in recent years, we’re reminded of one of Rogers’ most comforting statements: “You know, my mother used to say a long time ago, whenever there would be any real catastrophe in the movies or on the air, she would always say, ‘Look for the helpers.’”
Mister Rogers didn’t instill a sense of entitlement in his viewers, as a handful of pundits suggested. Rather, he instilled personal value. He spoke to us in a way that critics have missed: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” These were the ideals he hoped to foster in future generations.
In the wake of tragedy we may see glimmers of selflessness in American society, but more often we see divisiveness. On the first anniversary of 9/11, Rogers said something that still resonates with his “lifelong friends”: “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. 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.’”
Mister Rogers’ lessons remain valuable because, even after 50 years, it seems we’re still learning to master them. We’re often angry, cruel, distrustful and selfish. Rogers said, “There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.” If only we could remember that when commenting on a post, driving, or just trying to live with one another. Every peaceful place to live begins with being a good neighbor.