We didn’t have a television when my kids were little. We occasionally popped a DVD into the computer for them, but TV as such didn’t come into their lives until they were out of grade school. The only thing I’m sorry they missed was Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. we did read some of his books and we owned a cassette tape of his songs that they listened to again and again. So he still influenced their lives.
These days I work in a public library. Fifteen years after Fred Rogers passed away, parents are still coming in looking for his books to help their children through difficult issues. One mom recently said to me, “My first thought when I was trying to figure out how to help my son (through a loss) was, there has a be a Mister Rogers book we can find.”
Over the weekend I went with my husband and 20-year-old son to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — the documentary about Fred Rogers. My husband might have made it through with dry eyes. Maybe. Neither my son nor I did.
Spoiler: Was Mister Rogers really like that? According to everyone interviewed in the movie, yes, absolutely. The movie didn’t paint Fred Rogers as perfect and all-knowing. It showed how he had some growing to do through the years on some issues and that he struggled with self-doubt. He was human, but a pretty gosh-darned exemplary human.
The truly great thing about Mister Rogers was that he didn’t lie to children. He took on tough, tough subjects and let kids have their feelings about them. He never pretended children’s lives were easy. He never said, don’t be scared or don’t be angry. The vital part of his message lay in telling children those feelings are to be expected sometimes, but that there are healthy ways to express them and that you will survive having them. He also deconstructed gender stereotypes by showing that a man could be a gentle, patient, nurturer.
My newly grown son was a child who needed gentle, patient, listening adults in his life. After the movie, he seemed profoundly moved. All he could say at first was, “He really understood children and what they need.” Later we talked some more about the bigger philosophy of Mister Rogers and his message of unconditional love.
Go see the movie if you can at all. It’s a needed reminder in these dark times that there are people who strive for goodness and kindness, people who dedicate their lives to making the world better. It’s also a good reminder that heroism comes in many forms, including quiet small acts such as inviting someone of another race to soak his feet in your pool at a time when public pools were segregated.
I came away inspired to be my best self. I will try to be the person Mister Rogers believed I could be. And I will remember that even he had self-doubt, but he kept working anyway.