It will certainly be a less beautiful day in the neighborhood if we are unable to persuade PBS to reverse its recent decision to drop “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as a daily program on the network feed. As of September 1st, his presence as a nurturing mentor to our children and grandchildren has been reduced to a trivialized trickle, when in reality we need his particular perspective like never before.
Fred Rogers has proven to be an extraordinarily valuable friend of children and their families for some forty years now, helping children develop inner strength and creative capacities that are crucial for coping with life’s challenges. Quite apart from the intrinsic value of his tutelage for each child as an individual, consider the ‘curriculum’ of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in the context of the demands now facing America as a community:
Self-restraint: Mister Rogers teaches children through quiet counsel, puppet play, and song that there are more civilized ways to handle their urges than just blindly acting out. For example, his song “What Do You Do With The Mad That You Feel” helps children recognize constructive alternatives to hitting or kicking or biting when they feel angry. Regrettably, the song seems not to have been on the playlist of White House when in the aftermath of 9/11 they concocted the tragically emotion-driven invasion of Iraq, with little consideration given to the root causes of our pain.
The environmental, economic, and social challenges of our times and future cry out for deep and enduring (and unaccustomed) self-restraint, and who else will teach it? The most popular verb in advertising today is “grab”, the realm of film and TV and video games is saturated with fantasies of dominance and destruction, and the unfettered consumer credit-card debt we Americans have totted up in our binge of self-indulgence is greasing the skids toward perpetual indenture to creditor nations whose citizens actually save money. (Remember “save”? How quaint. Seems so long ago…)
Imagination: Mister Rogers nurtures children’s imagination like no one else in history. Day in and day out, he helps children exercise their capacity for fresh, original approaches, finding new ways to think and play and make things happen. And what capacity could be more important to continue to nurture in the rising generation—a generation who will inherit from us the most daunting array of planet- and civilization-threatening challenges known to humankind.
We will not solve the problems of today and tomorrow with more-intensive application of the kind of thinking that created them. The future will be redeemed by those who can rise above technological fundamentalism (“Don’t worry—science will solve all our problems.”) and conceive of entirely new ways for peoples to collaborate peacefully in the rescue and equitable distribution of the bounty earth is still capable of producing.
Cooperation: Mister Rogers demonstrates daily the processes and fruits of cooperation. His mini-dramas in “The Neighborhood of Make-Believe” also depict the unfortunate results when cooperation breaks down, and these lessons are not lost on his young viewers who always hope for good outcomes to their own engagements with others.
Americans think back fondly to the days (which few alive today actually ever experienced) when the members of a farm community came together for a “barn-raising”, leaving one of their number with a brand new barn at the end of a long day of working together. No barn-raising volunteer ever doubted that when they themselves fell into need, the community would work to support them, too.
Meanwhile, we are apparently content to watch nearly 50,000,000 of our own neighbors grovel as medical beggars, edging up to the doors of Emergency Rooms hoping that their bleeding will be staunched before the question of “coverage” is broached. We are a long way from living out a cooperative view of humankind, and we can ill afford to ditch Mister Rogers’ help in envisioning and developing more of it.
Diversity: Mister Rogers exposes children to an amazing array of individuals whose uniqueness is celebrated and cherished on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”. He helps children see the beauty in many whom the world considers damaged or inferior or scary.
We could use a lot more of that. America routinely goes through spasms of demonizing those who are different from some presumably-real-American prototype seen only in pickup truck commercials. We have no trouble choosing a demon-of-the-day. So many candidates. It’s the French who think invading Iraq is stupid, or the Mexicans who are okay to harvest our crops as migrants but shouldn’t merit signage in Spanish, or Muslims who dress for modesty rather than titillation, or gays and lesbians who want to express their lifelong devotion to each other through marriage. Why, oh why, can’t they be more like us?
Of course all this demonizing is nothing but a reflection of our fears—fears that we may be inadequate, or that we may be prompted to change from our comfortable routines of thinking and behaving, or that we have lost control of whatever we imagined we had control of. Mister Rogers helps children convert those fears to eager curiosity and gratifying discovery.
Self-assurance: Mister Rogers tells children (and all the rest of us), “I like you just the way you are.” They don’t hear that from much of anybody else, do they. Other voices tell them that I’d like you a lot better if you memorized your ABCs and your numbers. Or if you were wearing this brand of shoes instead. Or if you colored inside the lines. Or if…
When people know they themselves are okay just the way they are, they are far less apt to indulge in the kind of manipulation of others or to be influenced by others’ manipulation of them. America and the world could use a whole lot more people like that, and Mister Rogers should be there to help develop them, five days a week.
PBS’ dumping of the daily broadcast of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” included a sop to devotees that betrays PBS’ misunderstanding of the program structure and dynamic. PBS says it will pick one “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” episode to broadcast each weekend. But each individual episode of the program is merely one piece of a carefully crafted five-part conversation between Mister Rogers and a viewing child over a five-day span. Each week’s five linked programs take a single theme, like sibling rivalry or fear of separation, and gradually develop it throughout the course of the week, easing the child along each day into an ever-deeper absorption of the meaning, and nurturing their ability to live it out.
What Mister Rogers offered children was never a “TV show”. It was more like an illustrated phone conversation—a 1:1 relationship with a caring adult who understood a child’s fears and yearnings, and knew how to address them through daily televised visits together. Reducing those visitation rights 80% by plucking out one episode or another for weekend broadcast trivializes the sophisticated structure of Mister Rogers’ presence in the life of a child and trashes any hope of its continued contribution to young children’s development.
Viewers who believe that PBS should rescind its decision and keep Mister Rogers in our homes on a daily basis can make their views known to PBS and their local PBS station. Contact information is available through savemisterrogers.com on the web.
Eliot Daley served as President of the Mister Rogers organization during its early years and wrote a number of scripts for the program.