When I was three, my mom walked into the living room and saw me hugging the television set. “I love you, Mister Rogers,” I said. My own daughter was a toddler when Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood debuted. When I heard the familiar theme song for the first time in nearly 30 years, my eyes filled with tears – not from memories of the show, but rather from remembering how Mister Rogers had made me feel. It was like getting a hug from an old friend.
Angela Santomero, the creator of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and “Fred’s number one fan” told me that she created Daniel Tiger to honor Fred Rogers and share his approach to teaching social-emotional skills with a new generation of parents and children. “There’s a strong need for the ‘Freddish approach’ to life,” said Santomero, including “speaking to kids in an honest, open, genuine, and respectful way.”
Mister Rogers approached the world – and his conversations with kids about the world – with a “fearless authenticity.” He treated children’s concerns with dignity, from the loss of a pet to the fear of going down the drain. For example, when he arrived on set one day and found a dead goldfish in his aquarium, he used this unexpected moment to talk to his young audience about death and to share childhood memories about how he felt when his dog had died.
What is Mentionable is Manageable
Santomero said that goes back to one of Roger’s guiding principles: “What is mentionable is manageable.” For kids, this means giving them an expressive vocabulary for their feelings, a safe place to talk about them, and support in solving their problems. Or as Santomero put it, “You feel your feelings, you label them, and then you solve the problem. If we can talk about it, we can deal with it.”
Managing “Big Feelings”
Children can be easily overwhelmed by “big feelings,” and the intensity of these emotions can scary and confusing. Fred Rogers helped adults step into the shoes of kids, reminding them, “Young children don’t know that sadness isn’t forever. It’s frightening for them to feel that their sadness may overwhelm them and never go away. That ‘the very same people who are sad sometimes are the very same people who are glad sometimes’ is something all parents need to help their children come to understand.”
Simple Strategies for Parents and Kids
Fred Rogers was always addressing two audiences. He offered children lessons about empathy, emotions, and growing up – and he also offered parents simple strategies for helping their children grow and thrive.
Fred Roger’s techniques were grounded in his study of child development, said Santomero. “There was a reason behind everything he did,” said Santomero. “It was all very child centered. You get down on the floor and play with them, and then you see what that comes from that interaction.” He modeled how to “respectfully communicate with preschoolers by giving them time to think and by speaking directly to them — with love, warmth and a strong connection.”
“It’s You I Like”
For Fred Rogers generations of fans, it wasn’t just the strategies that we responded to – it was how we felt during our “conversations” with him, even though these interactions were mitigated by a screen. In his gentle way, he communicated his belief in the inherent dignity of each individual, reminding us that “You are special to me” and “It’s you I like”:
It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair
But it’s you I like.
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you . . .
As Santomero said, “You are special” isn’t about “effortless trophies.” Rather, it’s about “the power of one person who can look you right in the eye and say, you are going to do something great in this world. As you watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, you felt, through the TV, that Fred believed in you.”
Recently, a friend told me that this message from Mister Rogers offered her a hand in the darkness during a difficult childhood: “I can’t even read his name without tearing up. During those rough years, Sesame Street taught me to read, and Mister Rogers taught me to hope.”
Shortly before his death in 2003, Fred Rogers recorded this message for the adults who grew up “in his neighborhood”:
I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were much younger. I like you just the way you are. And what’s more, I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe. And to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods. It’s such a good feeling to know that we’re lifelong friends.
Happy birthday, Fred Rogers. And thank you.