Won’t you be my neighbor? The wisdom of Fred Rogers
Thirty years ago, when I was a young mother—poor, pregnant,
and generally not feeling too good about myself—I often
watched “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” with
my 2-year-old, Christy. Mister Rogers would look me straight
in the eye and tell me that I was special, that he liked me just
the way I was. I might have started the half hour feeling sad
and sorry for myself, but by the time the trolley chugged back
from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, I was smiling. I think
Christy enjoyed the show, too.
As an early childhood educator, I have long admired Rogers’ work with
young children, families, and teachers. He was one of the first public figures
to communicate to families the importance of emotional development and the
need for adults to listen to children’s feelings.
He influenced my teaching
by modeling ways to slow down and talk with children about their concerns and
the issues they face as they grow. From Mister Rogers, I learned about the
importance of fostering self-esteem, accepting individual differences, and
sharing the beauty of the world in ways preschoolers can understand.
special to America
Fred Rogers is an American hero. One of his sweaters, knitted
by his mother, hangs in the Smithsonian Institution. He received
every major award in television for which he was eligible,
including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Lifetime Achievement
Award from the National Academy of Television Art and Sciences,
and induction into the Television Hall of Fame.
His well-loved children’s program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” is
the longest-running show on public television. Rogers also received more than
40 honorary doctorates from colleges and universities.
But it was not the “fancy outsides” of life that nourished Rogers’ soul;
it was the giving to and receiving from others, and sharing the power of love
and acceptance that gave his life meaning. He helped children and adults know
that the essence of character development is “knowing that we can be
trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very
being is good stuff” (Laskas 1996).
Rogers was a composer, lyricist, writer, minister, psychologist, puppeteer,
producer, reluctant celebrity, and America’s favorite neighbor (Barish
2004). According to those who knew him, he was the same offstage as on, a soft-spoken,
genuinely great guy.
Though he died Feb. 27, 2003, his shows continue to air, influencing the lives
of millions of children and their families. I believe his greatest contribution
was illuminating for children and families the significance of affective development
and the power of human relationships.
Most children watch network television cartoons and commercials for several
hours a day. They contain many underlying messages: You can have a satisfying
life only by acquiring lots of stuff. Physical force gives power. Violence
and sarcasm are funny.
In contrast, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” offers
messages of love, acceptance, cooperation, and living in community. He shares
the beauty of the natural world, the wonder of the mechanical world, and the
importance of imagination.
Sickly in his early years
Fred McFeely Rogers was born in 1928 into a wealthy family in
a small town near Pittsburgh. Rogers was an overweight and
sickly child, spending one summer entirely indoors in an air-conditioned
bedroom because of asthma. His school years were disrupted
by three-month winter trips to Florida until he entered high
school. Growing up, Rogers found that he could work through
life’s traumas with puppets and music (Laskas 1996).
He studied musical composition at Rollins College in Florida
and had been accepted into a Presbyterian seminary after graduation.
But during his senior year, in 1951, he saw television for
the first time in his parents’ home. “And
I just hated it,” he said. “I looked at those people on television
throwing pies into each other’s faces. And I thought: I’m just
going to go into television! And everyone was so flabbergasted. Because literally,
I was supposed to start seminary in September” (Laskas 1996).
After graduation Rogers moved to New York and got a job at NBC, working his
way up to floor director in two years. In 1953 he returned to Pittsburgh and
got a job with WQED, the nation’s first community-supported public television
station. He helped develop a show called “The Children’s Corner” with
Josie Carey. Rogers brought his own puppets to use on the show—Daniel
Striped Tiger, King Friday the 13th, X the Owl, and Henrietta Pussycat, precursors
to the puppets still seen on the “Neighborhood” show.
During this period Rogers attended seminary and began studying child development.
He consulted with child psychologist Margaret McFarland almost daily until
her death in 1987. She once said that Rogers was more in touch with his own
childhood than anyone she had ever known. Rogers also sought advice from notable
early childhood educators such as Benjamin Spock, Erik Erickson, T. Berry Brazelton,
and Vivian Paley. In 1963 he was ordained a Presbyterian minister with the
special charge of ministering to children and families through television.
Rogers married his college sweetheart, Joanne, in 1952, and they had two sons.
He kept his family life private from his television friends but would answer
children’s questions about his personal life when they wrote to him.
However, he often talked about his own childhood, showed photographs of himself
as a child, and recounted feelings and doubts he had growing up.
The “Neighborhood” show
The earliest prototype of his own show was called “Misterogers,” a
15-minute production resembling the make-believe segment of the
later show. In 1967 the Sears-Roebuck Foundation agreed to provide
funding for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and
made it available to public television stations nationally. By
the 1990s it was aired on 290 stations and watched by more than
eight million people weekly.
“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” follows a pattern and a leisurely
pace, reassuring for the target audience of 3- to 6-year-olds. The show begins
with a view of a comfortable little town, devoid of traffic except for a red
trolley. As the music builds to a crescendo, the camera zooms in on a little
brown house. Suddenly we seem to be inside the house with a traffic light blinking.
The camera moves across a familiar room, past a closet, and to a door that
opens to a smiling Mister Rogers, who enters grandly. He sings “It’s
a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” while removing his jacket and selecting
a comfortable sweater from a closet that holds only sweaters. The change from
jacket and dress shoes to sweater and sneakers are important transitions, signaling
to children that Mister Rogers has a grown-up life somewhere, but that he has
set aside this time to talk to them. He is inviting them into a “safe,
familiar, and caring world” (Townley 1996).
Mister Rogers looks directly into the camera and speaks to his child audience
about the topic of the day. (At this point in the show, many children believe
that Mister Rogers is speaking directly to them.) Mr. McFeely, “speedy
delivery,” often brings a package pertaining in some way to the topic
of the day, an interesting videotape, or an invitation to visit a fascinating
person or place.
Mister Rogers might visit a pretzel or toothbrush factory to show children
how objects relevant to their lives are made. Other times he might call on
a Hindu dancer, an artist in her studio, an opera company, or cellist Yo-Yo
Ma, a frequent guest.
Returning to his television house, Mister Rogers suggests something to pretend
that day related to the documentary segment. By explaining what they are going
to make believe, Rogers conveys the message that children are in control of
their imaginary play. The trolley signals the transition from the real world
to the imaginary world.
If Mister Rogers visits a dentist at the beginning of the show, one of the
puppets in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe might express fear of dentists.
Lady Aberline, a human character in make-believe, would listen and explain
what really happens at the dentist’s office. The make-believe portion
of the show subtly deals with children’s complex feelings and the challenges
of learning and growing.
The trolley rolls back through a tunnel and returns to Rogers’ television
house. After a few relaxed comments, there is another transitional song. Mister
Rogers sings “It’s such a good feeling” as he changes back
into jacket and dress shoes and leaves through the door he entered 30 minutes
earlier. He waves goodbye, reassuring children that he will see them “next
Mister Rogers’ message
“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was planned in
weekly segments around themes such as “the mad you feel,” “understanding
divorce,” “going to school,” “the environment,” “kindness,” and “conflict.” Events
in the Neighborhood sometimes added unexpected, but meaningful,
lessons to the show. When one of the fish in his tank died, Mister
Rogers had the cameras zoom in and took the opportunity to explain
the process of death to his young audience.
Mister Rogers believed in being honest with children in as simple terms as
possible. He demystified the mechanical trolley and video games by demonstrating
their inner workings and on more than one occasion showed the studio where
the program was filmed. On a day when he had a bandaged hand, a puppet character
said she was afraid of having a bandage. Lady Aberline attached and removed
a bandage from her hand and face, explaining that she was still the same underneath
and that her skin did not go away when she wore a bandage.
Rogers’ message of acceptance included appreciation of self and others.
He believed the body was inseparable from the real person, as exemplified in
the songs “Your Body’s Fancy and So Is Mine” and “Everything
This concept is important to toddlers and preschoolers who are mastering control
of their bodies and their emotions and finding delight in their growing capabilities.
They are learning to say what they think and feel, to control the urge to hit
or bite, and to master walking, running, climbing and riding a bike.
Sometimes parents would write to Mister Rogers on behalf of their young children,
sharing the child’s joy in developing new abilities such as drawing or
riding a bike, mastering fears, or learning to use the toilet. One 4-year-old
simply wrote, “Dear Mister Rogers, I don’t wet the bed anymore” (Rogers
Mister Rogers does not so much tell his viewers how to live as he raises questions
about “what it might mean to have a full and abundant life” (Guy
1996). He doesn’t force his answers on children but rather offers his
own insights and leaves the decisions to the audience.
Once Daniel Striped Tiger, the most timid and vulnerable of the puppets, questioned
whether he might be some kind of mistake because he was tame and shy and did
not look like other tigers. On a similar occasion when another puppet character
doubts her importance, Rogers tells her, “We need you to be who you are.” This
may be not only a human affirmation but also a recognition of the holy within
each of us (Guy 1996).
In Mister Rogers’ world, the true heroes are those who express misgivings
and self-doubt, those who are not afraid to be vulnerable. That is seen as
a sign of growth, of learning about ourselves. Power comes from having the
ability to love and be loved, to build relationships with others, to cooperate
and live in community (Wehmiller 1996).
The challenge of self-acceptance is enlarged on the Neighborhood to include
the acceptance of others. Rogers emphasizes how important it is to have neighbors
who are different from oneself.
You know how different we all are. But I
what helps us to be friends—because we are so different.
I can’t be exactly like Elsie Neil or Chef Brockett or
Bob Trow or any of my other friends. That’s why I need
them to be my friends—because we are so different. It is
the same way with you. I can’t be you. That’s
why I need you for my friend (Wehmiller 1996).
Sometimes children, especially those with disabilities, were
invited to visit the studio. One morning, 11-year-old Brian and
his mother arrived at the studio from Texas. Brian had Williams
Syndrome, which causes heart problems and cognitive delays. He
greeted his television friend by asking, “I am special,
aren’t I, Mister Rogers?”
Rogers responded, “Yes, you are.” Together they sang the song “You
are my friend, you are special…” with Rogers’ arm gently
around Brian. Rogers talked with Brian and showed him around the studio until
a producer urged a beginning of the workday. After agreeing that they would
probably not see one another in person again, Mister Rogers assured the boy
that they could still be television friends. Before Brian departed, Rogers
looked him in the eye and told him. “You blessed my space today, Brian” (Laskas
1996). Throughout his career, Rogers demonstrated unconditional acceptance
of others, whether on or off the camera.
Mister Rogers also helped children understand that other people have needs
like our own that should be respected. Through his work, he “proclaimed
an ethic of challenge and responsibility” (Guy 1996). Mister Rogers shared
his expertise as a puppeteer and musician with children in his audience and
introduced them to many talented people, such as jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis
and children’s musician Ella Jenkins.
When he showed something that humans can do—make candles or knit sweaters—he
suggested that children can learn to create these things, too, but not without
hard work and growth. The lyrics from the song “You Can Do It” represents
You can make believe it happens or pretend
You can wish or hope or contemplate a thing you’d like
But until you start to do it, you will never see it through
‘cause the make-believe pretending just won’t do it
You’ve got to do it.
Ev’ry little bit you’ve got to do it, do it, do
it, do it.
And when you’re through, you can know who did it, for
you did it, you did it, you did it (Rogers 1969).
One important gift that early childhood teachers can give to
young children is their passion for what they love to do, whether
that is sewing, woodwork, art, or playing an instrument. By loving
what you do in the midst of children, you are showing them healthy
ways of expressing their feelings and making a contribution to
the world. It is the kind of gift we can give children that will
last forever. “It’s the spirit that gives that kind
of gift its wings” (Rogers 1994).
Today I am a grandmother and teacher educator. When I happen to be home at
11:30 on a weekday, I watch my all-time favorite television program, “Mister
Rogers’ Neighborhood.” In my personal and professional life, I
encounter people of many ages, cultures, belief systems, and economic backgrounds.
I have found that the wisdom of Fred Rogers can be an ideal I aspire to in
my relationship with myself and others. One of my favorite quotations from
Mister Rogers that applies to our work with children and adults can be found
As human beings, our job is to help people
realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that
each of us has something that no one else has—or ever will have—something
inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to
encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide
ways of developing its expression (Rogers 2003).
Barish, H. (executive producer). 2004, Jan. 1. “Fred Rogers:
America’s favorite neighbor [television broadcast].” Pittsburgh,
Pa.: Family Communications and WQED Multimedia.
Guy, W. 1996. The Theology of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
In M. Collins and M. M. Kimmel (eds.), Pittsburgh, Pa.: University
of Pittsburgh Press.
J. M. 1996. What is essential is invisible to the eye. In M.
Collins and M. M. Kimmel (eds. Pittsburgh, Pa.:
University of Pittsburgh Press.
Rogers, F. 2003. New York:
Rogers, F. 1996. New York: Penguin.
Rogers, F. 1994. That which is essential is invisible to the
eye. (5): 33.
Rogers, F. 1969. You’ve got to do it. In Milwaukee, Wis.: Hal-Leonard Corp.
Townley, R. 1996. Fred’s shoes: The meaning of transitions
in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In M. Collins and M. M.
Kimmel (eds.), Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Wehmiller, P. L. 1996. Keeper of the dream. In M. Collins and
M. M. Kimmel (eds.), Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh
The Williams Syndrome Association, http://www.williams-syndrome.org/.
About the author
Connie Green is a professor in the Department of Language, Reading,
and Exceptionalities and the birth through kindergarten program
at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. This year she
is teaching prekindergarten in a public school in rural Appalachia.