Commentary: Why Mr. Rogers is as important as ever today

Last week, my wife and I went to the Coolidge Corner Theatre to see the new documentary film about Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

We both grew up in the 1980s so to some extent this was a sentimental journey back to our childhoods. But the film is not simply a nostalgic look at an iconic children’s television show. Like “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which ran for over three decades on public television, it is a radical call for us to love one another and offer our best selves to the world. It is a message as critically important today as it was in 1968 when Mr. Rogers first told America’s children that he loved them just the way they are.

Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister who never preached from a pulpit but instead dedicated his life to teaching generations of young Americans through the powerful medium of television. As a young adult, he was distraught by children’s programs featuring clowns getting pies thrown in their faces and other demeaning behavior. He had studied the emerging field of child psychology and believed we had to offer something better for young and impressionable viewers.

The result was the most brilliant children’s television show ever created. I loved Mr. Rogers as a kid and, now that I am parent, I have rediscovered it through adult eyes. There are many good programs out there for children these days, but “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is the only one that actually makes me a better parent when I watch it with my daughter.

Mr. Rogers modeled how to talk to children with patience, tenderness, and respect. He understood that they experience a wide range of emotions and that it is incumbent upon adults to help them understand those feelings. “If you can mention it, you can manage it,” was one of his mantras about helping children deal with their experiences, including scary ones. He never shied away from difficult topics such as death and divorce.

Mr. Rogers does not take over the room with loud music and fast paced animation like most children’s shows today. In an interview clip in the film, he says he never felt the need to be “sensational.” Instead, he speaks to children directly with a calm and genuine voice. Watching the show as a parent feels like a three-way conversation between you, your child, and a trusted friend.

The day after we saw “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, we decided to watch an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” with our four-year-old daughter Lucy. Toward the end of the show, Mr. Rogers interviews a young girl with leg braces. Lucy has worn similar braces since she was two and she is still learning to walk steadily, climb stairs, and navigate playground structures.

After asking his young guest about her braces, Mr. Rogers says he is proud of her. He then turns to his TV neighbors and asks if there is anything they are proud of. Without any further prompting, Lucy walks into her playroom and returns with a caterpillar she had made with a pipe cleaner and uncooked pasta wheels. She then walks to the TV and holds up her caterpillar for Mr. Rogers to see. In just 25 minutes, Mr. Rogers had made a personal and meaningful connection with Lucy, breaking down not only the barrier of time, but also that of the television medium itself.

Early on in the film, one of the interview subjects asks whether America really got Mr. Rogers’s message of love and kindness. It is a question that haunts the rest of the film and has stuck with me since we emerged from the darkness of the movie theatre. Right now, it is difficult to say with confidence that we got the message.

Fred Rogers believed that “love is at the heart of everything. All learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love, or the lack of it.” We intuitively know this is true, but sometimes we need a gentle reminder. Fred Rogers passed away in 2003, but if he were still with us today he would not shame us. He would help us return to our best selves, to be good neighbors to one another. After all, it’s such a happy feeling, we’re still growing inside.