The Story Behind the Stamp: The Timeless Teachings of Fred Rogers
By Maureen Leary, Early Learning Programs Manager
This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique… 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.
—Fred Rogers, 1969 Senate hearing on PBS funding
Though he was a quiet, soft-spoken man, Fred Rogers left an indelible mark on the collective consciousness of the American public through his long career in children's television. The 50th anniversary of the debut of his program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in 2018 sparked a resurgence of public interest in the man and his legacy. Since that anniversary, Rogers has had a stamp dedicated to him, a biography of his life published, a documentary made about his career, and been the subject of an acclaimed feature-length movie starring Tom Hanks. What makes his story so compelling, and why does he continue to be so relevant today, when the source of his fame is a slow-paced, seemingly simple children's program that changed little over the span of 33 years?
Although he retired from public broadcasting in 2001 and passed away in 2003, Rogers is a man who is in many ways perfect for this moment. "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was based on the premise that all children need to feel heard and loved, and that difficult topics should be embraced rather than avoided. Fred Rogers took his duty to communicate with children very seriously. As part of his studies to become an ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers immersed himself in the world of child development under the tutelage of luminaries such as T. Berry Brazelton, Benjamin Spock, and Margaret McFarland. Rogers developed great respect and empathy for the emotional lives of children, and he entered the nascent world of children's television to provide an antidote to what he viewed as the slapstick and superficial nature of children's programming at the time.
"Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” featured both his conversations with his audience and his guests, as well as the distinct setting of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, memorable for its puppet and human interaction. For the program's inaugural episodes in 1968, Rogers dedicated the entire week to a story line about the pompous King Friday taking measures to keep strangers out of his kingdom. Though written in response to the escalation of the war in Vietnam, plot points such as building a wall and drafting border guards give the episodes an eerie sense of prescience of current times. Within the first three months of being on air, Fred Rogers did a special evening episode as an immediate reaction to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. From its earliest days, the program never shied away from examining events that might be weighing on children. This spanned a wide range of topics, from heavy ones like death and divorce, to more mundane ones like starting school and trying out a new skill.
Well, it means somebody getting killed in a sort of surprise way.
Rogers started his program with a clear sense of purpose, and continued in that vein for 33 years, making it one of the longest-running children's shows in U.S. history. Despite its tranquil pace, simple props, and limited cast (Mister Rogers voiced most of the puppets himself),the show was truly progressive, at times even radical. In addition to tackling seemingly taboo topics, Rogers also gently taught a message of inclusion and acceptance. One of the original characters on his show was Officer Clemmons, who played a Black police officer, and whose role was considered groundbreaking in its inherent message regarding race relations. In the same year as the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., François Clemmons became the first Black actor to have a recurring role on a children's program, and he appeared on the show for 25 years.
In the 1970s, Rogers made a point of casting Maggie Stewart as the mayor of Westwood, the town next to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. As a Black female in the role of an elected leader, who used sign language in the songs she performed, Ms. Stewart embodied Fred Rogers’ commitment to inclusiveness and breaking barriers. Rogers invited people from all types of backgrounds onto his show, and he offered the same message to all his cast members, guests, and young viewers: "I like you just the way you are." Whether it was through his warm smile and thoughtful conversation, his unquestioning acceptance of whomever he was with, or his purposely unconventional casting choices, Rogers consistently lived out his vision by making supportive messages visible and explicit.
Although Mister Rogers made it look natural and easy, talking to children about sensitive topics can be daunting. With the country currently consumed by both a global pandemic and the fraught landscape of confronting systemic racism, it's likely that parents and caregivers are navigating tricky interactions with young children on a regular basis. Even putting aside current events, kids are naturally curious and constantly attempting to decipher meaning from the world around them. In the absence of trusted input, children will draw their own understanding from what they observe about the world. Rogers purposely used his program as a framework to guide young viewers and their families through difficult conversations. Rogers was extremely careful with his word choice (his exacting approach was dubbed "Freddish" by his team of writers), but he also had the advantage of working from a script. When deeper conversations with children happen spontaneously, it can be intimidating to know the “right” response in the moment.
Fortunately, there are many resources available to help. The depth and breadth of age-appropriate children's books that address challenging topics is now far beyond what it was during Rogers' lifetime. Reading with a child can be a wonderful way to approach a conversation that takes the pressure off the adult to find all the right words. It's possible to acknowledge the child's feelings in the moment ("I'm glad you brought that up. I want to talk to you about it but let's do it at a different time when we can give it more attention.") while allowing time and space to find the best resources to scaffold the discussion. Smithsonian educators at the National Museum of African American History and Culture have put together a book list specifically on the topic of talking about race, racism, and protest with young children, in conjunction with the recent launch of their Talking About Race portal. Scholastic.com offers a list of "25 Picture Books to Promote Kindness, Empathy, and Justice ."Teaching for Change and Books for Littles both provide curated book lists on a wide array of challenging topics.
These are just a few of the many valuable resources available. It's also possible to use original "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" episodes as primary source material from the man who was on the vanguard of demonstrating how to communicate openly and sincerely with children. When he wasn’t talking directly to audiences himself, Mister Rogers often used the character of Daniel Striped Tiger (his purported alter ego) to convey important messages during segments in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. The characters from that magical world have been reimagined for current audiences through the popular children’s show "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood." Starring the son of Daniel Striped Tiger, this spinoff of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” provides an animated interpretation of Fred Rogers' compassionate and measured approach that continues to resonate today. Of course, when weighing what to say during a hard conversation with a child, perhaps it’s most helpful to simply remember Rogers' straightforward philosophy: "The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self.”
Fred Rogers also famously once said, "Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me." Currently, adults all over the country may find themselves playing multiple roles as unexpected full-time caregivers and assistant educators, while increasingly facing uncomfortable and important questions from children. Stepping out of our comfort zone to support children in making sense of the world around them, even as we struggle to understand it ourselves, can be a heroic act, and one that would make Fred Rogers proud and honor his legacy.