Mr. Rogers died in 2003, but one of the lessons he can still teach us is that you can believe passionately in something and not be a jerk about it.
Fred Rogers, the host of PBS’ “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” is the subject of the theatrical documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” It’s a revealing look at the man who was a part of so many childhoods. It turns out he really was that nice in real life.
But he also was driven by passion and belief. In one black-and-white clip, he said love was at the root of everything – “love or the lack of it.” An ordained Presbyterian minister, he believed television could be a tool to build up children, but instead much of it was shallow, wasteful and designed to mold them into consumers. He wanted something beyond pies-in-the-face humor.
In response, Rogers used his show to speak to children’s questions about themselves and the world, and to assure them of their unique, intrinsic value – not as the consumers they would become, but as the persons they already were. While other children’s shows bombarded them with images and sound, he slowed things down, had conversations, and incorporated silence. He once taught the length of a minute by sitting quietly while an egg timer marked the passing seconds. No television show would do that today. But perhaps it would be a useful exercise for all of us to do occasionally.
Rogers had been a sickly, overweight rich kid who spent a lot of time in a make-believe world, and there was some self-doubt that remained with him as an adult. He never forgot that children struggle with things, and he tried to help them through those struggles. In one segment, the puppet Daniel Tiger asked if he were a “mistake” and didn’t immediately buy into the human Lady Aberlin’s assurance that he wasn’t. Sometimes kids need more than just an answer.
Shows touched on national issues, too. At a time when public swimming pools were segregated, Rogers invited the African-American Officer Clemmons to cool his feet in a wading pool with him on a hot day. After Bobby Kennedy was shot in 1968, Daniel Tiger asked what “assassination” meant. Choosing her words carefully but not avoiding the question, Lady Aberlin replied, “It means somebody getting killed in a sort of surprise way,” leading to a continued conversation. In the show’s first week on the air, the puppet King Friday was so distressed by the changes happening around him that he erected a wall and incorporated a border guard. The documentarian’s parallels with the Trump administration are obvious, but the more timeless message is about humans’ tendency to build walls around themselves when change occurs. King Friday is persuaded to reverse course after other characters send him various written messages via balloons, including one encouraging “peaceful coexistence.”
It’s hard to see how there would be a “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” today. Few media figures try to appeal to a broad audience anymore. Instead, it’s all about finding your niche in a fractured culture. Talking about peaceful coexistence doesn’t fit you neatly on either team. In his day, Rogers and his mannerisms were parodied. Today, he’d be mocked, ridiculed and condemned by people fulfilling their agendas and building their own brands.
Still, there’s a lot we can learn from him. Few of us will build a media empire, but many of us have social media platforms reaching hundreds if not thousands, and of course we all talk to people in real life. All of it contributes to the climate surrounding us. So what will we do with that? Contribute to the noise and discord? Or might we counter-program like Mr. Rogers did, slow down and use our inside voice to talk about real things and make peace?
Mr. Rogers started each show by changing into a comfortable sweater and sneakers and then making a humble request, not a demand.
I’ll make the same one. You and I don’t agree on everything and never will. But neighbors don’t have to. So would you be mine? After all, it’s a beautiful day.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.