Reality TV in His Make-Believe Neighborhood

Mister Rogers Helped Us All to Grow Up

I was talking with my wife recently about how someone
we know shelters her children. She protects her children from the daily tragedies that she encounters and controversy never enters her home. If someone calls with a problem that needs immediate attention, and the children are nearby, she informs the person that she “can’t talk now, because ‘Susie’ is here.”

I mention this because I worry this does more harm than good. Children certainly don’t need to be exposed to all the horrors that we adults encounter. But children eventually need to know how to deal with tragedy. They need to be able to sort out feelings of sadness, pain, regret, guilt, and even the feelings that surround death.

I think one person who understood this was Fred Rogers, who died last week at 74. The host of the children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred
Rogers was one of the few hosts who allowed children to experience the range of emotions. He met children in both his world of make-believe and the ever-present world of reality.

Mister Rogers was one of the first (if not the first) hosts to address children’s feelings on divorce directly. He spoke about anger and frustration and gave children suggestions on how to solve disputes constructively. He covered topics like war, poverty, and physical and mental disabilities. He allowed children to feel, let them know that “the world is not always a kind place,” and he encouraged adults to see that children “need our help to understand that.”

He created a world for children that was not Pollyannaish, yet one where problems can be solved. He even was able to place himself at the crux of the problems facing children, often times speaking of his own frustration and anger and how those were very real feelings that at times he had trouble controlling in himself.

What many people don’t know about Mister Rogers is
that he was really the Reverend Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister. Mister Rogers’ pulpit was the television camera and his church charged him only with continuing his television work, broadening their appeal through the lens of television. It was an innovative plan that spread a gospel message albeit without explicitly mentioning God. His message was filled not with fire and brimstone, like other television evangelists, but with gentleness and love.

While his audience was filled with children mostly between the ages of two and five, Fred Rogers’ lessons are ones that we need to hear too. This gentle, quiet man, who believed in fostering the imagination and creativity of children, preached the gospel subtly: “Unless you become like little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 18:3).

Mr. Rogers loved and encouraged simple pleasures:
Homemade puppets and cardboard castles and the feel of a warm cardigan sweater and sneakers. He was filled with awe for life and everything was an adventure in the neighborhood. And while life was not easy, it was more than worth living. Problems were solved by acknowledging our feelings, by listening to our neighbors, by not giving in to our fears. He rejoiced in the creation of God that we are.

On Mr. Rogers website, there are helpful hints for parents whose
children may have questions about the death of their beloved TV friend. It stressed, “Feelings are natural and normal.” Even in death, Mr. Rogers continues to take his message to the neighborhood.