Updated: Nov 13, 2018
Mr. Rogers, of the eponymous Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood children’s television show of decades ago, seems to be popping up everywhere lately, even though he died back in 2003. You can watch every episode of the show on Amazon prime, and a variety of T-shirts, books - even a stamp at the US post office - are floating out in pop culture space. There is a movie in production now featuring Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers, and another movie entitled Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, just released to video, that chronicles Mr. Rogers’ life, work, and mission. It offers a moving reminder of the importance of connecting emotionally with kids and building relationships that allow them to flourish.
For those of us interested in the overall wellbeing of children, either as parents or educators, Mr. Rogers is at once a flashback and a fortune teller. His unhurried pace and self-voiced hand puppets bring us back to a time when there were a limited number of channels on television, and the only thing in the house that could come close to an electronic device was an Etch-a-Sketch. This style has largely been abandoned in favor of more “stimulating” children’s programming, more graphic and fast-paced than the land of make-believe created by Mr. Rogers.
Although his show seems old-fashioned, Mr. Rogers was actually way ahead of his time. He advocated for practices that are scientifically sound according to today’s advanced brain technology. Mr. Rogers knew that children’s brains need time to rest and reflect: constant stimulation is overwhelming and can actually impede learning. Matched up against best practices in brain-based learning, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is as relevant today as it was forty years ago.
Here are 6 of Mr. Rogers’ effective practices for teaching and parenting that align with current neurological research:
Mr. Rogers believed that one of the main jobs of adults is to coach children through tough phases, instilling in them the confidence and skills to self-regulate. He said, “It seems to me that one of my main things is to help children through the difficult modulations of life. Some modulations are easy, and some aren’t so easy.” This is where bonding, trusting relationships come in: kids who feel secure in a calm and safe relationship can get through tough times. Mr. Rogers believed he could be that person for kids if their parents were not able. He spoke to children directly through the television, a calm and attentive presence that doesn’t exist in person for many children. We can replicate this practice by taking a few minutes to really listen: even if kids can’t put exact words to their feelings, it’s reassuring to have the full attention of someone who cares enough to notice when they have something important to say.
Mr. Rogers talked about real issues and told kids the truth in a way that was developmentally appropriate. He said, “Whatever is mentionable can be more manageable,” and proceeded to tackle such issues as race relations, divorce, and death. A particularly poignant scene depicts the puppet Daniel Striped Tiger asking questions about assassination on the day after Robert Kennedy was shot and killed. My favorite episode shows Mr. Rogers cooling his feet in a baby pool with Officer Clemmons, who is African American. This episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was filmed during a time when segregation of pools was still common, which Mr. Rogers found to be “absolutely ridiculous.” We are not helping kids when we hide important issues from them: they can handle talking about stressful subjects with our support.
Mr. Rogers processed the themes and takeaways of the episode with children at the end of each show. Through song and discussion, he talked about what the puppets had just talked about, offering clarity and an opportunity to build metacognitive skills. Mr. Rogers said, “I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.” We’re still grappling with the same stigmas regarding mental health and are now accustomed to seeing important adults publicly manage their feelings poorly. Even when we feel like reacting or letting our anger out, kids need to see us in control of our feelings as we acknowledge them. Encouraging kids to explain what happened in their own words lets their brains integrate stressful situations and complicated information in a healthy way.
Mr. Rogers encouraged parents, letting them know they already have the tools they need to raise their children successfully. All of the internet opinions on raising kids today have generated more self-doubt for parents. Mr. Rogers advocated for simple interactions to build a close relationship and parent-child attachment. He said, “You are already capable of building and sustaining beautiful relationships with the children in your care.” This message continues through the Fred Rogers Center in Pennsylvania, run by Dr. Junlei Lei. In addition to archiving Mr. Rogers’ shows and interviews, the center aims to empower parents and teachers by providing a “Simple Interactions Tool” and advice on digital media. Dr. Lei, featured often throughout Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has the same quality that Mr. Rogers had, making you feel through the camera as if he is talking directly to you. You can access resources from the Fred Rogers Center at http://www.fredrogerscenter.org/
Mr. Rogers was an early advocate and teacher of mindfulness. He modeled deep breathing to kids and gave them time to reflect. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had a way of slowing it down - way down. Mr. Rogers would watch a turtle crawl across the room, peel an apple in one long twist, and take his time feeding his fish. TV reviewer David Bianculli said of the show, “There’s a lot of slow space: there’s no wasted space.” Mr. Rogers once set an egg timer for one minute, and then quietly waited for the minute to pass, so that children could feel how long a minute really is. I can't even imagine a whole minute worth of down time on any children’s shows today. Mr. Rogers said, “Silence is one of the greatest gifts that we have.” Of all of the lessons from Mr. Rogers, this is the one we have gotten the furthest away from in the advent of the smartphone. The noise pinging in kids’ brains is often unending, with all of the notifications and interactions from social media and various devices. Taking the time for kids to disengage from technology, to play or read quietly, or - heaven forbid - get bored and figure out what to do on their own is important for their social and emotional wellbeing.
Love is at the center of every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and is the primary message in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Mr. Rogers said, “Love is at the root of everything - all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.” The factory model of U.S. schools has generally kept the word and the concept of love at arm’s length in favor of academics. This is a mistake: emotion is inextricably tied to learning, and a loving environment can facilitate learning for every child. Love belongs in schools and in our daily interactions with kids.
Mr. Rogers’ greatest worry was that all of his work in vain, and that people creating content for children would forget what it’s actually like to be a child. It’s safe to say that Mr. Rogers would not have been a fan of social media or tablets in the hands of toddlers. There’s hope, though, that we can swing things back to the point where humanity is central in education and social-emotional learning is integrated with academics. As Mr. Rogers told us, "although children’s 'outsides' may have changed a lot, their inner needs have remained very much the same", and the need for connection, attachment, and love remains central to wellbeing.
Learn more about Won’t You Be My Neighbor? at http://www.focusfeatures.com/wont-you-be-my-neighbor or visit The Fred Rogers Center.