A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood?
We tend to associate children’s television with silliness, innocence, and make-believe. These programs are fun but are without any serious depth. TV for children rarely tackles heavy issues and does not elevate viewers because they are “just” children.
But there is an exception to every rule and, in television, that exception was Mister Rogers.
Mister Roger's Neighborhood ran on the small screen for over three decades. It featured a man talking to children either through his own voice or through his puppets in a way that was both fun and serious. He didn’t merely talk at them, but spoke to them in a sincere manner, as if he was speaking to each individually.
Fred Rogers did not fit the mold of a television star. He was mild-mannered and each episode wore a cardigan sweater, hand knit for him by his mother. This does not seem like the sort of person destined for stardom.
The reinvigorated interest in Mr. Rogers comes off the heels of the recently released documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? The film tells the story of Fred Rogers and his famed program. The filmmakers show that the characters on screen generally mirrored the character of the man himself.
The quality of the man stems from his faith. Rogers was an ordained minister tasked by the Presbyterian Church to do work on television. His mission was to better the lives of children. He did so by showing them respect -- treating them as individuals, in accordance with his Christian understanding of human value and dignity. In sum, it was to be an example of love. His program was not explicitly religious, but there is no doubt that he was carrying out the Lord's work.
It is from this Christian mission and view of children that he is most misunderstood. The documentary features a clip from Fox & Friends calling him an “evil man” who has “corrupted a generation of kids” because of his signature line “I like you just the way you are.” They portray this line as fostering a sense of entitlement and laziness in kids who become ungrateful adults.
This is too simplistic of an understanding of Mister Rogers. He was not saying “do whatever you want” because you are all special, but rather he provided the reassurance children need. Merely correcting them and telling them how bad the world is would not have been effective. He understood that kids must first believe they are loved and appreciated to listen to a formational message.
Mister Rogers is not to blame for the problems of modern culture that the Fox News hosts derided. He espoused a Christian view of love that the hosts did not comprehend. God’s love is unconditional--He loves all people, but also wants us to atone for our sins and to strive to be better. All are inherently valuable as children of God, but we all are imperfect.
The modern culture is not the result of this Christian love as exemplified by Mister Rogers. Quite the opposite, actually. The entitlement of today is based in selfishness. Rather than atone for sin, many tend to view their free will as a good in itself -- what one chooses is viewed as a good because he himself chose it. The self-importance of today is certainly not the product of love properly understood.
Love is not merely affirming one’s own thoughts and feelings, but also entails a pursuit of the good which involves casting aside our immediate desires for something beyond us.
One such example of love is the famous scene in which Mister Rogers and Officer Clemmons dip their feet into a kiddie pool. Officer Clemmons was a black police officer (which was itself unique) but to see these two men’s feet in the pool together was significant. This seems pretty tame today, but this was 1969 (only one year after MLK’s assassination) and this was a powerful statement at a time in which segregation was, if not legal, a common societal practice. Love entailed a breakaway from the racial prejudices of the day by showing this example of good friends, who lived together happily in the neighborhood.
The show’s theme song concludes, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” His conception of neighbors and neighborhood are crucial in spreading this message of love. These concepts were meant to foster relationships between people and Rogers saw this was needed while children were growing up.
Mister Rogers made a statement against racism in a way that seems unremarkable. It seems like an ordinary encounter. And rightly so. It should be normal for people of all races to be friends with their feet in the same pool. This example of love in a simple gesture is what we are called to do in our daily lives in order to be good neighbors.
Once he showed his audience he thought each and every one of them was of value, then he could tackle the serious issues. The film explains that in the 80s and 90s he devoted entire weeks of programming to issues like death and divorce--the sort of events kids will have to deal with but may not understand. Fred Rogers showed them that their feelings of confusion and even self-blame were natural, and he provided a sense of stability for children who may not have had it at home.
It is easy for the cynical adult to say this man’s message was wrong, but that would be incorrect. Mister Rogers showed a true example of love to millions of kids, even if he did not know them personally. His program gave them the support they needed to become good members of the neighborhood.
Today, young children watch YouTube personalities, videos of other people playing video games, and silly cartoons on TV. Kids search for escape and entertainment, which is what they are generally offered online and on television. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood made sure that the audience learned to love and be loved as well as was be entertained, which is not the case with most children’s programming.