“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” a documentary about the beloved children’s TV personality Fred Rogers, contains some of the most solid parenting advice ever given. Every parent would benefit from seeing it, now in theaters.
Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, felt children deserved more from TV than the cartoons that modeled disrespectful and crass behavior. He was drawn to educational TV as a tool to model trust and respect for young children.
In 1967, he introduced his “neighborhood” as a place where children could feel comfortable talking about hard issues, resolving conflicts and expressing feelings; a place of understanding and safety.
As a child, Rogers had childhood diseases that isolated him, but at the same time produced his vivid imagination. He was also bullied as a chubby tween, and these experiences made him ultra-sensitive to children’s feelings.
He never forgot how vulnerable it was to be a child. The scars of his life were used to uncover childhood fears and talk directly and honestly to children.
“Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was a low-cost, simple production and had an unlikely star. Yet it was a smash hit; its appeal to children was magical. Its success lay in the relationship of trust and understanding Rogers built with children.
With the skilled use of puppets such as Daniel Tiger, Henrietta Pussy Cat, and King Friday, and his cohorts Mr. McFeely the postman and Officer Clemmons the policeman, Rogers confronted hard issues, acknowledged children’s feelings, and ended with reassurance and acceptance.
With unique courage and attuned to current issues, Rogers helped children through the tragedies of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, the explosion of the Challenger and the events of 9/11. He tackled such issues as divorce, death, getting lost, racism and school failure.
At a time when President Nixon planned to cut funding to PBS, Rogers spoke before a committee of Congress. He shared his philosophy of a child’s need of trusting adults, of being affirmed for their uniqueness and loved unconditionally, and that childhood feelings are mentionable and manageable. After his talk, millions of dollars were restored to PBS immediately.
The simple program opener of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” this humble man changing into his cardigan sweater and tennis shoes, belies the depth of what is to come. He gently gains our trust and then peels away at the things that cause our anxiety.
The essence of good parenting is found in this documentary, gently illustrated by this man of sincere goodness, who has left a huge legacy as a loving and accepting father for us all.
Many years ago while I was walking in Descanso Gardens with my children and their grandpa, a young boy came up to my dad and said, “Are you Mr. Rogers?” My dad considered that the best compliment he had ever had.