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Mister Rogers, television's polite radical

It's a beautiful day, isn't it?I'd like to share something with you today, if I may. I've been watching some c...

Posted: Jun 11, 2018 9:01 AM
Updated: Jun 11, 2018 9:01 AM

It's a beautiful day, isn't it?

I'd like to share something with you today, if I may. I've been watching some classic "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" episodes recently, reading books about its titular creator and checking out the current television spinoff, "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood." These trolley jaunts between make-believe and reality have given me newfound respect for the mission Fred Rogers was on, for the sake of our children.

Fred Rogers was an ordained minister who considered his congregation a children's television audience

His show modeled politeness, wonder, empathy, mindfulness, listening and connecting

But first, I feel I should confess something. When I was young, I was always more of a "Sesame Street" kid than a "Mister Rogers" neighbor, mainly because the former better reflected my own experience growing up an only child with a single mom in a big city. The "Street" was more urban, diverse, frenetic, in-your-face and funny, while the "Neighborhood" was more suburban, homogeneous, placid, polite and sweet.

It was that contrast that made a recurring "Saturday Night Live" skit, Mister Robinson's Neighborhood, so popular and hilarious as Eddie Murphy inserted Fred Rogers' character into the last place he would be found: city housing projects. As young as 9 or 10 years old, I would surreptitiously stay up late and watch "SNL," though I probably would have benefited more from additional sleep, and from watching "Mister Rogers" instead of laughing at it.

Well, I feel better having gotten that off my chest. When you have a feeling inside and then let it out, doesn't it feel good?

Feelings are 'important talk'

Of the many lessons Rogers gently gifted his audience, a chief one was that all emotions are valid, even the sad and angry ones. They need acceptance from friends and family and, often, expression -- so long as it's not violent. Sigmund Freud called this "sublimation," the channeling of destructive impulses into socially acceptable actions. It was a pillar of Rogers-ism, and he often referred to dialogue about emotions and feelings as "important talk."

In its quiet and understated way, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was, and still is, a radical departure from nearly all other children's television programming in this focus on feelings and behavior. The show's aim, it seems to me, was not to primarily be educational or entertaining -- the intersection where "Sesame Street" was paved -- but to be true.

Mr. Rogers -- the man, not the character -- had two jobs. He was the host of a show that aired for an epic 33 seasons and one of the founding fathers of public television, but he was also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church, a liberal denomination of Christianity. When he entered the seminary, he negotiated an unusual specialization: His congregation would be a children's television audience, starting with the first American generation to grow up watching the tube. The show was not overtly Christian in content but was consistent with the values of his faith.

"I went into television because I hated it so," Rogers said in an interview with CNN in 1999. "And I thought, 'there's some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen.' ... The whole idea is to look at the television camera and present as much love as you possibly could to a person who might feel that he or she needs it."

When the show began its national broadcast in 1968, it had the same format, tone and mission it maintained until it last aired, just two weeks shy of the September 11 terror attacks. Rogers spoke directly to his congregation about feelings, about negotiating common issues with friends and parents, about the power of imagination and the joy of fully focusing on simple, creative tasks.

When Rogers looked in the camera and said "Hello, neighbor friends," he was guided by a spiritual calling to love "thy neighbor" -- a reference to one of the more well-known New Testament quotes. The notion of loving and caring for others as you might do for yourself is a core tenet of Christian faith and known as the "Golden Rule" and the "greatest commandment." Rogers re-enacted it every day.

"Mister Rogers" was educational in that his show touched on civics and conflict resolution and explained short lessons in biology or even business. He was a tour guide to the outside world, whether it was how to order food at a restaurant or discovering where milk comes from. But the show didn't necessarily try to teach math, Spanish or letters in the alphabet. What distinguished it from other kids' programming was its focus on helping children negotiate internal emotions and external relationships.

"When I was very young, most of my childhood heroes wore capes, flew through the air, or picked up buildings with one arm. They were spectacular and got a lot of attention," Rogers wrote, as if describing contemporary entertainment. "But as I grew, my heroes changed, so that now I can honestly say that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me."

'Mister Rogers' vs. 'Daniel Tiger'

My 6-year-old daughter is one of a legion of little fans of "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood," a cartoon spinoff of "Mister Rogers" that began airing on public television in 2012.

We watched a couple of episodes together, and then a couple of weeks later, we watched two episodes of "Mister Rogers" from the 1980s. Both shows are available on PBS.org and on streaming devices such as Apple TV.

My daughter liked the OG Neighborhood, and the episodes held up despite all the cultural and technological change since they aired, speaking to the evergreen experience and emotions of childhood in general.

She also picked up on some key differences between the shows. "Daniel Tiger" takes place in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, which was the imagination-fueled puppet-and-human world that makes up less than half of "Mister Rogers." "Daniel Tiger" is also a cartoon. Cartoons were not part of the original show, by design. But what struck my daughter the most was the contrast of the two Daniel Tigers, which is also indicative of the shows' differences.

Kids would ask Rogers which of his characters resembled him the most, his wife, Joanne, recalled in "The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember," a short volume of quotes. His answer was Daniel Tiger, a puppet whose dominant characteristic is shyness.

But the new cartoon Daniel Tiger is a gregarious cub always up for a fun playdate and a good song. No offense to Rogers' musical talent -- his undergrad degree was in music composition -- but the songs of the cartoon spinoff are much catchier. Even when I wasn't paying attention, the jingle-lessons that the characters in "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" sang would get stuck in my head for hours afterward.

On "Daniel Tiger," we see a mix of old characters and new, all displaying impeccable manners. Lady Elaine still lives in the museum-go-around, for example, but now has a daughter of another race. Trolley is no longer bound by tracks, transporting folks around like a sentient self-driving Uber. Like his creator, Daniel looks into the camera when he asks the viewer a question, pausing for an answer -- but his pause is harder to ignore, a second or two longer than Rogers'.

The topic addressed in one episode of "Daniel" we watched was that if plans don't work out, that's OK, because friends just want to play together rather than adhere to a plan. The other episode was a voting cautionary tale. The jingle "Stop, Think and Choose," was followed by acknowledging how upsetting it can be when your choice doesn't win the vote and then an attempt to look for some upside to the option that won, to aid acceptance.

The episodes of "Mister Rogers" my daughter and I watched were less explicit about the lessons. Basically, friends got into misunderstandings and compromised. But what made the original show remarkable is just how meditative everything was. Time itself seemed to slow as Rogers and Mr. McFeely, the delivery man, play with toys in a sandbox -- just two grown men acting out the movements of preschoolers, close-ups of hands pushing cars in sand through a tunnel made of an empty oatmeal container. The nothingness was surprisingly engaging. Everything on the show is over-explained, the songs aren't catchy, and action, such as it is, is set to a light jazz soundtrack. The experience was calming and mesmerizing, for me and my daughter. Afterward, instead of the normal plea for "one more episode," we happily played a board game together.

The original "Mister Rogers" occasionally delved into zeitgeist topics such as the Cold War, gender inequality, environmentalism and racial discord, all of which are detailed in Michael G. Long's biography, "Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers."

The significant difference between "Daniel Tiger" and "Mister Rogers" is tone. They both deliver similar pint-sized feeling-centric wisdom, but "Daniel Tiger" is eager to entertain while imparting it, while "Mister Rogers" is more effective at drawing the viewer into his live-action world with his methodical pace and gentle grace.

Be my neighbor

The lasting legacy of Fred Rogers is fundamentally something more soulful than "educational children's television" conveys. It is about relationships: how we negotiate friendships, family and the outside world (even as suburban as it was often portrayed).

The answer to "how" is with politeness, wonder, empathy and mindfulness and by listening and connecting. We are a planet of neighbor-friends who need to look out for one another, make ourselves better understood and at times bare our souls to each other.

A 2004 research study about the show found evidence that the program's values had a long-term impact on viewers. "The frequency with which the values and ideals of the program surface in the lives if those who watched the program is unclear," wrote the authors after analyzing tributes to the show just after Rogers died, "but there is some indication that the responses analyzed here that prosocial impacts may be lifelong."

Rogers has described his own childhood as lonely. He was chubby and bullied. But there were some adults he credits with supporting him through difficult times and emotions, the chief being his grandfather Fred McFeely, who was honored on "Neighborhood" by that most reoccurring of characters, the speedy delivery man Mr. McFeely.

There is a parenting call to action by Rogers to be our kids' needed guides though a world that is more complicated and nuanced from their perspective than it may seem to us.

When speaking to audiences, Rogers liked asking them to pause in silence and reflect on someone who made a difference in their life as a way to remind us of our own obligation to be that person to someone else. It's a great exercise: Take 10 seconds right now to reflect on someone who has helped you become the person you are. And then consider opportunities to positively impact a child in small but often profound ways.

Those small ways often boil down to listening and acceptance. "If the day ever came when we were able to accept ourselves and our children exactly as we and they are, then, I believe, we would have come very close to an ultimate understanding of what 'good' parenting means," Rogers wrote, adding that it's part of being human to fall short of that goal. Yet "one of the most important gifts a parent can give a child is the gift of accepting that child's uniqueness."

Rogers challenges each of us to be our best selves, especially with our children, and to model how others can be their best self, every day. "Rogers wasn't content merely to accept us as we are," Long wrote in his biography. "He wanted us to become prophets and peacemakers committed to making our neighborhoods bastions of compassion."

So, let's make the most of this beautiful day. Since we're together, we might as well say, "Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won't you be my neighbor?"

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