I recently watched a documentary called “Won’t You Be My Neighbour?”, whose subject is a certain Fred Rogers. Not everyone may have heard of him, but he was and remains a legend in the history of public television for passionately advocating a brand of decent programming to teach children the values we actually want to impart to them - simple yet important things like honesty, sharing, empathy and compassion - in a way that treats children as fundamentally capable of understanding deeply human things, using a simpler vocabulary that they can understand and respond to. It’s hard to describe the genre of his show “Mister Roger’s Neighbourhood”, which quite simply forged a path of its own. There are of course contemporary descendants like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse but it’s important to emphasise that Neighbourhood took itself seriously, forgoing slapstick inanity and canned laughter for thoughtful conversations about the art of living from the point of view of a child. For contemporary readers (circa 2018), I would best describe it as Sesame Street (puppets and all) meets Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (politics and all).
Like a typical documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbour?” gathers family, friends and collaborators to track the history of the show and paint a picture of the man behind it. It is equal parts touching and inspiring to see how Mr. Rogers’ vision was singular and how his purpose remained sincere over decades. Fred Rogers was a devout Christian (Presbyterian as a matter of fact), committed to enter the seminary to be ordained as a priest until he saw a television for the first time, at which point he immediately decided he would go into television instead. For the duration that his unlikely show aired on TV (between 1968 and 2001), he was not unlike a priest delivering good-natured sermons - his church was the combined area of all the living rooms in American households, his congregation exclusively comprised of little people and his message a constant call for a plain-and-simple goodness of spirit that religion alludes to beyond its performative requirements. In one interview, he stated outright that he makes a personal connection with the camera as a proxy for the individual on the other side, and that he considers the space between the TV screen and whoever’s watching holy ground - “a lot happens there”.
Mr. Rogers’ impact was undeniable, enjoying a period of time where he was a household name across the US, a name that still evokes strong sentiments from his young fans years after they’ve left the cocoon of childhood. In a cynical age, such pure-heartedness seems almost mythical, so much so that some have (unkindly) questioned over the years whether his message - that everyone deserves unconditional love - actually breeds entitlement. This kind of vapid criticism wasn’t surprising. What was surprising to me as a long-time fan of the man even though I’ve never seen the original programme myself, was the depth of the subject matter discussed in each episode and the philosophy that underpinned the core message. I’d like to explore these quietly radical aspects in this essay, but to do that well I’d like to propose a detour.
There’s something peculiar I’ve noticed - when you stand on a bench or a table, you don’t just get an elevated point of view, you actually feel different. The air feels cooler, the view seems clearer as if more things are in view (and perhaps they are?). Most importantly, there’s this visceral newfound confidence that rushes in, in an almost inexplicable manner, as if you are above it all… (or at least above the petty troubles of your previous situation). There seems to a definite kinesthetic difference in perception which wouldn’t surprise me because this resonates closely with what Amy Cuddy refers to as the science of power poses. Sounds almost new-age right? If you stand in particular ways, like shoulders back, head up and hands on your waist, or just spreading arms and legs to make yourself as big as possible, you literally feel a rush of confidence, almost as if these postures are a special kind of yoga. You don’t have to take my word for it, you can try it for yourself. Just stand on the chair you’re currently sitting on and see if you feel anything different.
Now, imagine the opposite. Imagine shrinking to a smaller size. As short as your shortest friend, and then smaller, down to the size of a child or a toddler. What does the world look like to a child? Everything’s so big, everything seems out of reach, so far away. So many new colours, so many new textures, the entire visual field a playground of superlatives of all kinds. All the people around you seem to be speaking too fast over your head using unfamiliar sounds in a manner so different than the way they speak when looking your way. We’ve all been through this stage but somehow these are the very memories that seem to be lost, unavailable in the otherwise voluminous personal archives of nostalgia. No matter, we must still imagine the experience of being small to be scary to a certain extent. Is it not natural, even as an adult, to be unsettled around things that are bigger, louder, stronger than us (say, a full grown bear), as surely as we assume we have dominion over things that are smaller, weaker, dumber than us (like ants on the patio)? Walk into an ancient cathedral with a ceiling so high that it strains the imagination to consider how it might have been built without cranes, and you might glimpse what size-related disorientation feels like (triggered by design for obvious ends in this case). Is the feeling really that different than how a child might feel in the world? I suspect not.
From the perspective of a child, I imagine there is a visceral feeling of incomprehension and helplessness, save for the familiar doting attentions of the adults who don’t leave your side for too long. Yes these two adults seem to have it all figured out, they will do anything to make you smile, they share your pain when you are hurt, they take care to minimise your discomfort and they will keep you safe. Yes, you can trust these two grown-ups, they will keep you safe.
What does it mean to be safe? It’s not just about being physically unharmed, there is also a sense of intimate trust that there are people who will not leave you in the lurch, and perhaps the hope that there are support systems in place to buffer against the worst consequences of change. In this sense, the sense of safety one feels is less the result of an objective assessment and more an intuition of the state of things given one’s ability to navigate within the turbulence of potential changes. To a child, the whole world is a daunting place, safe only within the radius of its parents’ care. Little does the child know however that the adults themselves don’t have it all figured out; that knowledge comes a tad bit later in life. The adults are also winging it as it so happens - they are as clueless on how to adult as the child is on how to human. Quite a situation yet manageable in most circumstances. This is the humble fullness of family life - perhaps as old as human civilisation, yet still as relatable and seemingly unresolved - featuring highlights such as ground rules on home chores, frustration when someone forgets the milk, birthday celebrations and visits from extended family relatives, tantrums about bedtime and ice cream quotas.
But the modern globalised internet-connected electric-media world impinges on this delicate bubble often and in a rather insensitive manner. How is anyone supposed to process a Cold War that has brought mankind to the brink of destruction by its own hand, the assassination of a president, or the surreal millennium-defining event of 9/11? Is it supposed to be easy? Is there a guidebook on how to move forward from things like that - because if there is, please share that information more widely and you will be helping a lot of people sleep better at night. Such happenings are hard enough for an adult to process, so how would a child perceive this information? How should parents speak of these things to their children, and what words of reassurance can they offer? Are we to assume that children cannot perceive things they have not been explicitly told even though everyone around them speaks and acts differently? How might events like these influence the sense of safety that a child feels, and how would it affect the way they connect to the world around them? It’s a tough conversation, but it seems like the worst option is for adults to avoid these topics and not discuss it at all with their children, who nevertheless perceive the seriousness in the air but have no space to air their doubts and griefs. One has to wonder where these feelings go if they are not processed appropriately…
In this modern context, step into the shoes of a child once more. The adults walking next to you tower over you and talk past you, but the faces on TV/tablets are at eye-level and making eye contact. They seem to be speaking directly to you. It seems almost inevitable that young children might forge a strong connection with the screen almost as strongly as they do with their toys. In a very real sense, the strong connections children make with the things and people around them are an important part of their formative experiences. But what exactly are children seeing on these screens? This was an important question that Mr. Rogers asked in the late-1960s and it remains just as important in our current decade; and all indications suggest that you may not like the answer to that question.
It was in this context that “Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood” aired on screens across the United States with a definite mission beneath its humble exterior. In a world changing at breakneck speed (even back then, even worse now), he began every episode the exact same way. He always entered with a song, changing to a sweater and switching to a pair of comfortable sneakers. During each episode, he touched on many topics from death and divorce, to racism and conservatism - treating each topic with a solemn trust that is rarely afforded to children, focusing on the very real feelings these topics evoke, suggesting constructive ways to channel the restless energy that comes with uncertainty. At the end of each and every episode, he sang the exact same song every time, never once wavering in sincerity or phoning it in. Mr. Rogers hosted every single episode, voiced many of the puppets, spoke softly to the many guests and sometimes breaking the fourth wall to address his young audience directly, affirming time and time again that people come in many shapes, walks, shades and sizes and every single one (including the little ones watching the show) deserves love just for being who they are. It may sound rather quaint, but honestly how many of the world’s ills do you think are perpetrated by people who do not (know how to) love themselves (let alone others), have never even known that loving oneself is an act that requires no one’s permission, or more tragic still, do not understand that love is not a weakness that invites more pain but rather the antidote that ultimately breaks the cycle?
And so we arrive at the destination via the detour - a full reckoning of the quiet radicalism of Mr. Rogers’ message. He would repeat often that he liked you, little one in front of the TV, just the way you are, just you, not your hair or the things you wear, just you. He meant that you didn’t have prove to anyone (including yourself) you were worthy of love by fulfilling any special conditions, and you knew he meant every word. With this unprovoked unexpected gesture, you were disarmed if at least for a second, and you dared to like yourself too. And what a feeling it was. In a world that seems so full of itself that there’s no space left for the fullness of you to inhabit beyond shorthand labels and despite incessant memetic bombardment reminding you of everything you lack, actually liking yourself just for being yourself is in itself a most subversive radical act. That’s what Mr. Rogers pulled off day after day with his show - he demonstrated what being comfortable in your own skin feels like, and he encouraged his young audience to do the same.
I don’t know if there are other programmes on TV that carry the same spirit forward for children in our age, and if there aren’t, I feel a great sense of loss and can only hope other shows take up the mantle. I began watching “Won’t You Be My Neighbour?” as a fan of Mr. Rogers but by the time the credits started rolling, I was a convert to his brand of humanist decency, requiring of adherents not an otherworldly resolve to abstract ideals but a grounded commitment to look after oneself and others in the here and now. These are valuable lessons for every adult but Fred Rogers saw the value, nay the crucial importance, of preaching these to young children, who after all represent humanity’s hopes and dreams for the future. Wonderful documentary about a wonderful man - I highly recommend it.