In his acceptance speech for the Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award, Fred Rogers said something that gets to the root of what it means to have been a child. His words also encapsulate the countless things any of us might say about being a parent into one beautiful sentence:
“All of us have special ones who have loved us into being.”
He asked the star-studded audience to take 10 seconds to think of these people – the ones “who have helped you become who you are.” True to form, Mr. Rogers took a moment ripe for self-congratulation and turned it inside out into an opportunity for appreciation and gratitude. Even when receiving, he gave.
“How pleased they must be,” said Mr. Rogers, “to know the difference you feel they’ve made.”
And couched in that graceful sentiment, a suggestion: if you haven’t told those people about the difference they’ve made, you should.
What about Mr. Rogers triggers this reaction in me? The same things that drew me to his neighborhood as a child – his friendly manner, his reassuring voice that never rushed or instructed, the simplicity and clarity of his language, the calm way he went about everything, and the sense that he cared deeply about what he was doing.
Every day after getting home from school, I could rely on the model neighborhood flyover, the zoom into the small house at the end of the street, the familiar piano flourish as the camera panned from stop light to front door, where I would wait for his entrance. Sometimes he wore a mackintosh, sometimes just a sport coat, but he always sang the same song, which I would sing with him.
In his testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications in ’69, Mr. Rogers described his carefully orchestrated program – which, at the time, operated on a budget of $6000 – as “a meaningful expression of care.”
“This is what I give,” he told Senator Pastore, after taking a moment to find the right words. “I give an expression of care every day to each child to help him realize that he is unique.”
There it is. The philosophy that drove Fred Rogers’ entire career: the idea that each of us is inherently “special.” But this idea, repeated as often as it was in the Neighborhood, never implied that you should feel entitled or deserving of excessive praise. It had more to do with being honest with yourself about who you are, accepting that truth, and living in the fullness of that acceptance.
“One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self,” he said. In other words, we were expected to offer our specialness to others. We were expected to participate in a collective good much larger than ourselves – and we could do it well provided we did it honestly.
Of course, back then I didn’t realize he was helping me feel unique or giving me the tools to become a compassionate citizen someday. What I did know was that I liked watching him step in the door with a smile. I liked watching him change out of his jacket and into his sweater, zipping it up and a little bit down again. And I especially liked it when he took off his dress shoes, tossing one from his right hand to his left at just the right part of the song, before pulling on the dark blue tennis shoes with the white laces, and always managing to tie them before the song ended.
There is something fancy about every creature in our world, and there’s something fine about each one of us, too – each person, each fish, each animal, each bird, each living creature. The important thing for us is to look for what’s fine in everybody, and that will help us to want to take care of everybody, and give us a really good feeling.
Mr. Rogers understood that feeling is the driver of doing, especially for children. If kids could play an active role in helping themselves feel good, they would be well on their way to living full, rewarding lives. In the documentary about Rogers called “America’s Favorite Neighbor,” Michael Keaton put it this way: “Fred helped kids see lots of what made life good.”
His show was so simple, so specific in its scope, and yet it dealt with complex themes common to everyone. He’d take the concept of “body integrity” and turn it into a song called “Everybody’s Fancy,” which celebrates individuality and draws distinctions between what we look like on the outside versus how we may feel on the inside.
“What we see is rarely what is essential,” he told Charlie Rose years later. “What’s behind your face is what’s essential.”
Now think of this teaching in light of the societal pressures we have all felt to look and act a certain way, to be successful and significant, to be noticeable, to be worthy of attention or love. Fred Rogers understood these corrosive forces and countered them daily with small, digestible, seemingly mundane “expressions of care.”
But their commonplace nature is what made them so brilliant. He wove big, important ideas about humanity and psychological well-being into the everyday routine of a middle-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh, thereby making them accessible (via public television) to the most impressionable and ultimately influential demographic: children.
In his now famous defense of public broadcasting, Mr. Rogers said, “If we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.”
Mr. Rogers’ signature attention to “the inner drama of childhood” feels particularly poignant to me right now, as I raise two sensitive, spirited boys who notice everything, absorb everything, and sometimes get overwhelmed by the sheer emotional tumult of growing up. Just the other day, as my five-year-old pounded his fists into his bedspread, upset about missing an opportunity to share at school, I tried to channel Fred.
“I see that you’re really frustrated,” I said. “It’s a hard feeling to have. I get frustrated, too. Let’s try taking some deep breaths.” His little chest heaved as the tears rolled down, and I sat there with him in silence for a while. Then: “You have a share day every week, right? Do you want to talk about what you’ll share next time?”
Before long, my son had dried his own tears, hopped off the bed, and spread out his share options on the floor. Mr. Rogers called anger management “that good feeling of control.” I hope my son felt some of that good feeling as he whispered, “Eenie meenie miney mo…” to a Power Ranger, a collapsible camping cup, and a sparkly-eyed Beanie Boo turtle named Taffy.
If Mr. Rogers were still alive today, I would love to hear what he would say about the current political quagmire. I would love to listen to his soft-spoken voice deftly articulate an argument in favor of funding for the NEA, the EPA, and PBS.
In his absence – and in his honor – I think all of us would do well to revisit the values that fueled the longest running children’s program ever produced. Then we should counter the malicious, joyless forces eroding our democracy with actions worthy of Mr. Rogers as well.
“I know how tough it is some days to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead,” he said in his farewell broadcast. “But I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were much younger. I like you just the way you are.”
(Cue: vivid flashback to being six and sitting crisscross-applesauce on the pull-out couch in the family room on Stewart Street, eating a snack of Swiss cheese, crackers, and cranberry juice to “hold me,” as Mom said, until dinner.)
“And what’s more,” he continued, “I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe and to help them express their feeling in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods.”
(Cue: Private, earnest, tearful pledges to do everything I can to keep my children safe and help them express their feeling, even when their feeling conflicts with my feeling.)
Then he capped off 30 years and 895 episodes of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” with one of his generous smiles and these kind words: “It’s such a good feeling to know that we’re lifelong friends.”
Mr. Rogers was a famous television personality whom I never actually met, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t feel like a lifelong friend.