T’S BEEN MORE YEARS THAN I WANT TO ADMIT SINCE MY daughter was young enough to be captivated by the children’s TV program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Very little “television time” was allowed in our home, but program creator and host Fred Rogers--with his gentle, unassuming, simple approach to communicating with children—was always a welcomed guest.
His series began in 1962. The theme he repeated on each program—“I like you just the way you are”—was given to him when he was young by his beloved grandfather, Fred Brooks McFeely. Although Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, died on February 27, 2003, from stomach cancer, his heartwarming, self-esteem-building messages continue to be aired by local PBS stations today.
A recent e-mail from a friend reminded me about this TV personality. “If I’m remembering correctly,you like Mister Rogers,” she said. She included an article about the program host written by Mangesh Hattikudur.1 As I read it I was struck by the notion that not only children but also adults could learn much from Mister Rogers. The following are five of the many lessons I believe he taught:
1. If you’re kind and caring, you can touch the hearts even of criminals. Fred Rogers’ car was once stolen from near the TV station where he worked. The story was picked up by the media, and, incredibly, the car was returned to the spot from which it was stolen. On the dashboard was a note: “If we’d known it was yours, we never would have taken it.”
2. Animals know a good person when they meet one. When Fred Rogers met Koko the gorilla, who was Stanford-educated, could “speak” in sign language, and was an avid fan of Mister Rogers’ program, Koko walked over to Mister Rogers, gave him a big hug, and then did what she’d seen him do on his program: she took off his shoes.
3. If you see something you don’t like, change it. Mister Rogers was appalled by much of what he saw on television and determined to use the medium for good. With Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood he offered children “the same kind of reassurance, encouragement, and sense of self-worth”2 that his grandfather had given him.
4. Don’t gloss over difficult issues. Mister Rogers did not avoid sensitive issues on his show. Among other topics, he dealt with death, competition, divorce, anger, and war, bringing them down to a child’s level of understanding and helping children to focus on positive ways to cope with these life issues.
5. People know when you truly care about them. Mister Rogers was known for “tough interviews” because he inevitably made the reporters his friends by asking about their families, taking pictures of them, and calling them later to check on how they were doing. Hattikudur wrote: “He wasn’t concerned with himself, and genuinely loved hearing the life stories of others.”3
One time he insisted that the limo driver who took him to an event at an executive’s home join the group inside. During the ride home, he asked to stop at the driver’s house and meet his family. They became lifelong friends.
Can making a difference be as simple as this? Rogers thought so.When asked what the great-est event in American history was, he responded, “I suspect that like so many ‘great’ events, it was something very simple and very quiet with little or no fanfare, such as forgiving someone else for a deep hurt,which eventually changed the course of history.The
really important ‘great’ things are never the center stage of life’s drama.They’re always ‘in the wings.’”4
Yes, we can learn a lot from Mister Rogers.