The Timeless Teachings of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood

By Deborah Kris Farmer

On afternoon when I was little girl, my mom found me hugging the television set during the closing credits of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. “I love you, Mister Rogers,” I whispered.

My own daughter was a toddler when Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood debuted. As I heard that familiar theme song for the first time in 30 years, my eyes filled with tears.  I suddenly remembered 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.”

What’s Mentionable is Manageable

Fred 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.

Roger’s factual, compassionate responses to children’s questions and worries were rooted in one of his guiding principles: “What is mentionable is manageable.” Or as Santomero put it, “ 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.”

Rogers modeled helping kids develop an emotional vocabulary  – often through music, with songs such as “What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel” and  “There are Many Ways to Say I Love You.”  He showed us how adults can provide a safe place for kids to talk about their feelings and receive support in solving their problems. Santomero described his strategy this way: “You feel your feelings, you label them, and then you solve the problem.

Simple Strategies to Help Kids Thrive

Fred Rogers was always addressing two audiences. First, he offered children lessons about friendship, emotions, and growing up. And he also offered parents simple strategies for helping their children grow and thrive: how to talk to kids, how to listen, and how to use song, story, and make-believe to communicate important ideas.

Fred Rogers’ techniques were grounded in his study of child development, said Santomero. “There was a reason behind everything he did. 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. Rather,  it was how we felt during our “conversations” with him. 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”:

As Santomero said, the message “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 core message from Mister Rogers offered her a light in the darkness of a difficult childhood. “I can’t even read his name without tearing up,” she said. “During those rough years, Sesame Street taught me to read, and Mister Rogers taught me to hope.”

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