I recently saw the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?about the life and work of television icon Fred Rogers. I had heard it was great and was warned to bring tissues. Both turned out to be true.
Like many of my generation, I grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I had a toy trolley that played “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” when you pushed it along the carpet. My sisters and I would talk like Henrietta Pussycat to each other: “Meow-meow, can I have some meow-meowKool-Aid, meow-meow?” And we would discuss the inherent creepiness of Lady Elaine. I still vividly remember watching the clip showing how crayons (or as Mister Rogers said in his Philly accent: cray-uns) are made.
As a child, I didn’t appreciate how Mister Rogers encouraged me to feel my feelings. And I wasn’t aware of what he did to fight for public television and change the way people understand children’s entertainment. I watched his show until I outgrew it. His final episode aired just before I had my daughters, so it wasn’t a part of their childhood as it was mine. After watching the documentary, I was a little sad that my kids were left out of knowing this gentle, intentional TV figure.
The documentary explained how very popular Fred Rogers was—people would line up for a chance to come to a live event—and I wondered if current kids would embrace his show in the same way. I wondered if kids are now too sophisticated to sit and watch a normal-looking guy tie his shoes and zip up his cardigan. Would it be too slow paced for kids who are so used to being constantly entertained?
Sitting in the dark movie theater watching the credits roll and thinking that this generation is too cool for Henrietta Pussycat, I felt inexplicably sad. I felt like something was missing from childhood—Wonder? Imagination? Stillness? Gentleness?
Then a series of pictures popped into my mind (like bubbles from the episode when Mister Rogers and friends make an opera called Windstorm in BubbleLand). I thought of kids at my youngest son’s cafeteria table smiling at me with orange peels covering their teeth. I thought of children shouting “Cannonball!” as they jumped and splashed into our swimming pool. I thought about the fact that there are still kids who catch lightning bugs and make mudpies and play with action figures.
I think if he were still with us, Fred Rogers would take great delight seeing kids be kids in 2018. He’s quoted as saying, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” Even if they can’t watch his show in the way we did, they can still implement his philosophies of kindness, self-worth, and playtime.