Fred Rogers visits the Children’s Institute in Pittsburgh in 1978. (Credit: Jim Judkis; The Fred Rogers Center)
A few weeks ago, the internet had a meltdown. Unsurprising given our exhausting 24-hour news cycle and constant access to unfiltered/un-spell-checked social media, I know, but there was something different this time. It was less of a Twitter tantrum, and more of a cathartic, emotional outpouring of positivity across social media, news outlets, and blogs, with voices from all backgrounds and across the political spectrum ringing in agreement.
The catalyst: the release of the trailer for Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — an upcoming documentary about Fred Rogers and the three-decade run of his pioneering, genre-defining children’s television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (shortened to MRN for our purposes).
The internet’s love for Mister Rogers is well-documented, from Reddit’s “Church of Rogers” community, to the regular circulation of the video of Rogers’ successful defense of PBS before the Senate whenever funding for public broadcasting, education, or the arts is threatened, to this much-beloved GIF. After the trailer dropped, Google searches of MRN increased fivefold over the previous week, and the video’s comment section was flooded emotional declarations (“When I see this in theaters, I'm gonna ask for two buckets – one for the popcorn, the other for the tears”), somber reflections (“He was my sanctuary from a very abusive and violent childhood”), and commentary on the impact of growing up on a steady diet of neighborliness (“I honestly think the worst thing you can say to a person is, ‘You aren’t being the kind of person that Mister Rogers knew you could be’”). But why?
There was no sensory overload or stunning production values, no fight scenes depicting gritty antihero Daniel Striped Tiger battling corruption in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, and no promise of thrilling Mister Rogers action figures that could zip cardigans with super speed or melt loafers with lasers. So why does he still loom so large 50 years after the show’s premiere? What was it that connected with multiple generations? Why was I crying into my yogurt while watching the trailer on my lunch break?
Perhaps the reaction was purely due to nostalgia, but it’s possible that it’s both deeper and simpler than that: the show made children feel seen and valued, and that positive messaging played a critical part in their mental health and development.
Through puppetry and songs, special guests of all races, ages, and abilities, and field trips around the neighborhood, the audience was encouraged to develop their sense of empathy and build self-esteem. MRN was certainly progressive in the way it tackled issues like death and divorce, its undermining of toxic masculinity, and its takes on race, gender, poverty, and war, but at the core was the radical notion that children are just as emotionally complex as adults. Not only did it illuminate that kids are far more intelligent and observant than they’re given credit for, but it insisted that their feelings should be validated and respected. These ideas ran counter to the prevailing “children should be seen and not heard” adage, and they are still relevant today, especially with regard to child and adolescent psychology.
“I think the biggest takeaway from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is the emphasis on slowing down — on really seeing and hearing children, accepting them for the amazing beings they are, and responding with that in mind, instead of simply reacting to their behaviors,” said Joelle Beecher-McGovern, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Penn’s Child and Adolescent OCD, Tic, Trich, and Anxiety Group (COTTAGe). “He was really effective at keeping the focus on the child. Even though there was a screen between them, he was able to show he was present in the moment with them. That ability to say, ‘I’m here to listen, and I want to hold whatever you need me to carry,’ is so important.”
With a background in both clinical and developmental psychology and a certificate in school psychology, Beecher-McGovern “paints with a broad brush” and works with children and adults alike. She specializes in treating children struggling with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or other skill or language deficits. While she was a bigger fan of Sesame Street while growing up, gaining familiarity with the messaging of MRN and its animated spin-off Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (DTN) has been “good for me as a parent, as a therapist, and as a person” and complements her work.
“Between birth and 5 years old especially, kids’ brains are developing rapidly and wiring themselves. Conditions of abuse, chronic stress, and other traumas or mental health challenges cause the brain to wire in a way that makes the child feel as though they’re constantly in crisis,” Beecher-McGovern said. Though the term ‘trauma-informed care’ is fairly new to the general public, she notes that the non-judgmental, compassionate language used on MRN mirrors her own practices, such as “switching your perspective from ‘what’s wrong with you?’ to ‘what happened to you to cause this behavior?’ and learning to adapt your initial reaction to problematic behavior from ‘stop doing that,’ to ‘it looks like you’re having a hard time; how can I help?’”
Mister Rogers and his iconic Neighborhood Trolley, which shuttles viewers to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, home to characters like King Friday XIII, Daniel Striped Tiger, and Henrietta Pussycat. (Credit: Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh)
Key to this was MRN’s development of a safe harbor for viewers — a calm and welcoming set similar to viewers’ own homes, cheery but never frantic music, a balance of real world education and imaginary escapism, and a host whose slight drawl and deliberate, slow manner of speaking (seemingly directly to you) created a sense of trust, comfort, and unconditional acceptance. For Beecher-McGovern, this is of paramount importance, and it provides insight into why so many children over the years felt such a connection to Mister Rogers.
“Creating a safe space is the first step in parenting, in therapy, and in any work with kids, especially if they are working through trauma, a disability, or a mental health issue,” she said. “Most people, including children, have a difficult time allowing themselves to be vulnerable. But creating a space of acceptance — one where you open the floor for the expression of any thoughts or feelings, and where you make it clear you’re ready to listen and sit with them in any feelings or worries — can encourage them to open up.”
Whether focusing on child-sized dramas like getting a haircut or the first day of school, or discussing larger problems that affect people of all ages like grieving or making mistakes, MRN (and now DTN) struck a masterful balance between emphasizing that all feelings, no matter how big or overwhelming, are valid; getting on a child’s level and providing concrete and easily digestible information to help them contextualize those feelings; and encouraging them to express themselves in productive, healthy ways instead of bottling feelings up or acting out. While Mister Rogers and the Neighborhood of Make-Believe characters would offer a few examples, they never became didactic, instead asking open questions and leaving it to the viewer to dig more deeply into their own feelings and figure out what works for them.
Just like learning to spell and to count, developing emotional intelligence — the ability to identify emotions, understand and regulate them, and figure out how to act on them appropriately — is critical to children’s growth. It is essential for forging healthy coping mechanisms and building social connections. Oftentimes, though, adults understandably struggle to maintain a Rogers-like level of patience and support.
“A lot of adults tend to get uncomfortable when kids express ‘big emotions’ or ‘big behaviors,’” Beecher-McGovern said. “Rather than responding to what’s driving their child’s emotions and behaviors, caregivers may react out of their own discomfort. They may worry about being perceived as incompetent, judge themselves as a bad caregiver, or worry about the future — if their child is acting this way now, what will happen when they are 15? Instead of working through it step-by-step, they may immediately ease the child’s distress or stop the negative behaviors with a punishment. But it’s more helpful to look at what’s triggering the behavior — to pause, listen, and get to the underlying issue so they can work through it together.”
Beecher-McGovern points to an example of a socially anxious student crawling under a desk during class. In order to address the disruption, their teacher might be focused solely on getting them out from under the desk. Not only can this lead to an escalation, especially if threats of punishment are involved, but focusing on ‘fixing’ the problem ignores their anxiety. “For the child to develop a better understanding of their feelings, the teacher can’t just pull them out or commit to blocking their path in the future,” she said. “The student needs support as they process those feelings and determine strategies to manage them, ideally by both the teacher and student sitting in that discomfort in order to move through it together.”
This acknowledgement of feelings and working through problems is vital for children’s self-esteem. Aside from providing a boost through compliments — or, in the case of MRN, hammering home that “you make each day such as special day” because “there’s only one person in the whole world like you, and I like you exactly as you are” — actively teaching kids (and adults!) to overcome adversity, accept the inevitability of mistakes and the value in learning from them, work through new concepts and ideas, and exert independence allows them to build confidence in their own strength, mind, and ability to navigate the world and contribute to it.
The themes and music of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” are now finding a new audience through the animated spin-off aimed towards preschoolers, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
In addition to appreciating the show for its effective use of positive mental health messaging, Beecher-McGovern has borrowed a few techniques herself. Using songs from DTN has helped her clients express themselves and process their struggles. “I like to have the kids adapt the songs to their own feelings so they can use it when facing their own challenges,” she said. “Playing, drawing, singing, and other less direct ways of addressing distressing situations make them seem less scary.”
“I think the focus on make-believe play is also essential — at any age, really, but especially for kids because play is how they process their world,” she continued. “Their play themes indicate what they’re going through, and I think that joining them allows you to better grasp their emotions and broaden their perspective. Mister Rogers said that you should always look for the helpers after a traumatic event, so you can bring a helping hand — a doctor character, for example — into their make-believe world to work through both the imaginary and real issues.”
Fred Rogers noted, “Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.” While many of us adults may slip up occasionally — we can’t all be sweater-clad saints — the widespread renewed interest should serve as a reminder that we are all capable of creating a more empathetic, accepting, Neighborhood-like world for ourselves and for the next generation as they grow up in a confusing, overwhelming emotional minefield.
Between the documentary coming out this summer and the future film starring Tom Hanks (yes, that’s right, America’s dad is playing America’s favorite neighbor) we’re all in for a good deal more of Mister Rogers. I’ll see you at the movie theater. I’ll be the one in the back row openly weeping — and taking notes.