CNN Parenting

Mister Rogers, television's polite radical

Story highlights

  • Fred Rogers was an ordained minister who considered his congregation a children's television audience
  • His show modeled politeness, wonder, empathy, mindfulness, listening and connecting

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(CNN)It's a beautiful day, isn't it?

I'd like to share something with you today, if I may. I've been watching some classic "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" episodes recently, reading books about its titular creator and checking out the current television spinoff, "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood." These trolley jaunts between make-believe and reality have given me newfound respect for the mission Fred Rogers was on, for the sake of our children.
    But first, I feel I should confess something. When I was young, I was always more of a "Sesame Street" kid than a "Mister Rogers" neighbor, mainly because the former better reflected my own experience growing up an only child with a single mom in a big city. The "Street" was more urban, diverse, frenetic, in-your-face and funny, while the "Neighborhood" was more suburban, homogeneous, placid, polite and sweet.

      Go Ask Your Dad is parenting advice with a philosophical bent as one dad explores what we want out of life, for ourselves and our children, through useful paradigms and best practices. It considers old problems in new ways, and new problems that previous generations didn't face.

      It was that contrast that made a recurring "Saturday Night Live" skit, Mister Robinson's Neighborhood, so popular and hilarious as Eddie Murphy inserted Fred Rogers' character into the last place he would be found: city housing projects. As young as 9 or 10 years old, I would surreptitiously stay up late and watch "SNL," though I probably would have benefited more from additional sleep, and from watching "Mister Rogers" instead of laughing at it.
      Well, I feel better having gotten that off my chest. When you have a feeling inside and then let it out, doesn't it feel good?

      Feelings are 'important talk'

        Of the many lessons Rogers gently gifted his audience, a chief one was that all emotions are valid, even the sad and angry ones. They need acceptance from friends and family and, often, expression -- so long as it's not violent. Sigmund Freud called this "sublimation," the channeling of destructive impulses into socially acceptable actions. It was a pillar of Rogers-ism, and he often referred to dialogue about emotions and feelings as "important talk."
        In its quiet and understated way, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was, and still is, a radical departure from nearly all other children's television programming in this focus on feelings and behavior. The show's aim, it seems to me, was not to primarily be educational or entertaining -- the intersection where "Sesame Street" was paved -- but to be true.
        Mr. Rogers -- the man, not the character -- had two jobs. He was the host of a show that aired for an epic 33 seasons and one of the founding fathers of public television, but he was also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church, a liberal denomination of Christianity. When he entered the seminary, he negotiated an unusual specialization: His congregation would be a children's television audience, starting with the first American generation to grow up watching the tube. The show was not overtly Christian in content but was consistent with the values of his faith.
        "I went into television because I hated it so," Rogers said in an interview with CNN in 1999. "And I thought, 'there's some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen.' ... The whole idea is to look at the television camera and present as much love as you possibly could to a person who might feel that he or she needs it."
        When the show began its national broadcast in 1968, it had the same format, tone and mission it maintained until it last aired, just two weeks shy of the September 11 terror attacks. Rogers spoke directly to his congregation about feelings, about negotiating common issues with friends and parents, about the power of imagination and the joy of fully focusing on simple, creative tasks.
        When Rogers looked in the camera and said "Hello, neighbor friends," he was guided by a spiritual calling to love "thy neighbor" -- a reference to one of the more well-known New Testament quotes. The notion of loving and caring for others as you might do for yourself is a core tenet of Christian faith and known as the "Golden Rule" and the "greatest commandment." Rogers re-enacted it every day.
        "Mister Rogers" was educational in that his show touched on civics and conflict resolution and explained short lessons in biology or even business. He was a tour guide to the outside world, whether it was how to order food at a restaurant or discovering where milk comes from. But the show didn't necessarily try to teach math, Spanish or letters in the alphabet. What distinguished it from other kids' programming was its focus on helping children negotiate internal emotions and external relationships.
        "When I was very young, most of my childhood heroes wore capes, flew through the air, or picked up buildings with one arm. They were spectacular and got a lot of attention," Rogers wrote, as if describing contemporary entertainment. "But as I grew, my heroes changed, so that now I can honestly say that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me."

        'Mister Ro