By SPEC President, Dr. Carole Christopher
We went to see “Will you be my neighbour” and were stunned by how little we knew of Fred Rogers. We were already in our twenties, a generation ahead of his success and only knew he was somehow enormously popular with children and their parents. He was an astounding media anomaly, doing everything opposite to what producers believed “worked” on TV, yet he was a media megastar.
What made him so? The documentary stressed his vivid and enduring recollection of his own childhood. He spent long hours of imaginative play due to childhood illness and he had a natural inclination to introspection. He drew on on these resources in relating to children. It’s unclear if he had any formal training in child psychology but he obviously and intuitively understood how to engender in children a sense of safety and respect. He enabled them to believe in their own innate specialness and acceptance. One friend, who described herself as not particularly popular in school, rushed home ......
He was criticized for instilling an unrealistic belief in ‘specialness’ that didn’t prepare children for “the real world of adulthood” as if believing in our specialness stunts our capacity to mature. I firmly disagree with that and believe that children and adults inherently need a sense of being valued just as we are without further need for justification. I don’t think our culture does a particularly good job of valuing children on that basis and it stunts our ability to explore the full range of our self expression. He was a role model for remedying that deficiency. Person after person in the film spoke about how important it was to find a refuge in the assurance of Mr Rogers that “It’s You I Like.”
I recently heard a child psychologist speak about the long term effects of child abuse and how it can warp a child’s experience throughout life. Wounded children grow up to be wounded adults. The psychologist was asked if this can be remedied and he said yes but it takes skill and compassion to intervene and create the safety we should all grow up with. Some children suffer horrific abuse but many, perhaps most suffer a more subtle form of erosion of confidence by our cultural beliefs that little boys should be strong and little girls should be obedient, both persistent forms of cultural abuse that undermine the uniqueness and diversity of children. We like to think that as we grow up to adulthood we cease to need that validation but that forfeiture is a product of giving up not growing up and it’s likely the basis of our adult cynicism.
Listening to interviews with people who worked with him, seeing him ‘earn’ $20,000,000 for PBS by speaking plainly and genuinely from his heart to a grumpy congressman; and hearing the message he delivered on behalf of PBS to a severely frightened public after 9/11, reveals that he carried a banner for children and adults. And the banner was quite simply LOVE and the positive and supportive feelings that come with love such as: respect, patience, kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, forgiveness.
Mr Rogers had no difficultly, shame or shyness in talking about love and because he exuded love, he could also talk about a number of other more challenging issues like assassination, self-hatred, racism, and more. One particularly poignant scene depicted a puppet who decried his fear that he was a mistake in a heart wrenching song of self-doubt. When a human character entered the scene to tell him he was loved just as he was the producer in her booth was anxious that they might take the easy road of assuming all is well when we’re told not to doubt ourselves. What happened next brought tears to her eyes – well, maybe it was my eyes, – as their respective songs become a duet . She realized that Fred was once again going for the deeper message that we may not be able to shut off the ingrained messages of self abuse but we can learn to hear the duet partner that bolsters and buoys our self love. That’s real psychological sophistication and support.
Please go and see this film (I hear it's also playing on PBS) and as you do, consider The possibly that a small hopeful figure somewhere in you wants to bring out your version of Mr Rogers. The world needs us as good neighbours.