5 Lessons From Margaret McFarland, The Scientist Behind Mister Rogers
This modest developmental psychologist taught Mister Rogers everything she knew — and then he passed it on to us.
Before Fred Rogers slipped on his shoes and a cardigan, he was a young theology student attending the University of Pittsburgh in the 1950s. There, he studied under developmental psychologist Margaret McFarland, who would end up inspiring, influencing, and actively molding Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. To say the show would not have been without McFarland is an understatement. Over the course of three decades, Rogers and McFarland met to discuss psychology, upcoming scripts, songs, and of course, children, on a weekly and sometimes daily basis, and her wisdom is imprinted all over the neighborhood.
McFarland was an already large figure in child pscyhology before ever meeting Fred Rogers. After receiving her doctorate from Columbia and teaching in Melbourne, Australia, McFarland returned to Pittsburgh in 1953 and co-founded the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center with Dr. Benjamin Spock, famous for his studies on child development, and renowned psychologist Erik Erikson, known for coining the eight stages of development and the term “identity crisis.”
Unlike Spock and Erikson, McFarland kept a very low profile throughout her career and wrote very little about her teaching philosophies outside of her dissertation and a single journal article on “development of motherliness.” But her legacy has lived on through her students, Rogers chief among them, and the core tenet of what she taught should sound familiar, even if their origin is not.
1. Anything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable is manageable.
When Fred first began his study of child development at Pitt, McFarland help him get in touch with his own childhood memories and feelings. When doing this, she would repeatedly use the phrase, “Anything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable is manageable.” Simply put, it is OK to experience hard feelings openly, and more importantly, when people do this, they find healthier ways to cope. This theme comes up over and over again in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, like when Mister Rogers taught kids about how to get mad without hurting anyone, and feel many other complex feelings. It made for a catchy song and crucial lesson in emotional intelligence, but like many of Roger’s great ideas, it started with McFarland in the classroom.
2. Attitudes aren’t taught — they’re caught.
In a 2003 interview with the National Endowment for the Humanities, David McCullough boiled down McFarland’s worldview: “What she taught, in essence, is that attitudes aren’t taught, they’re caught. If the attitude of the teacher toward the material is positive, enthusiastic, committed, and excited, the students get that.”
Rogers recalled favorite examples of McFarland putting this into practice in Stuart Omans’ and Maurice O’Sullivan’s book, Shakespeare Plays the Classroom. She had a well-known sculptor from Carnegie Mellon University come to Arsenal but told him not to teach, but to simply be excited about clay in front of the kids.
“And that’s what he did. He came once a week for a whole term, sat with the 4- and 5-year-olds as they played, and he ‘loved’ his clay in front of them,” Rogers said. “The children caught his enthusiasm for it, and that’s what mattered. So, like most good things, ‘teaching’ has to do with honesty.”
3. Learning depends on love.
McFarland championed a teaching philosophy based on love and compassion. Her friend and colleague Rev. Douglas Nowicki remembers that, “For her, learning could only take place in the context of love. She believed that if a child doesn’t sense that the teacher cares for him or her, then that child will not be able to learn very much.”
Love is perhaps one of the most important supporting characters in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, more than Mr. McFeely and Daniel Tiger. There were his many ways to say “I love you” and how he always let children watching know he liked them just the way they are, not the things they wear or the way you do their hair. But love may have fallen into the background or been eclipsed by King Friday if it hadn’t been for Margaret.
4. Be an observer.
Pittsburgh play therapist Carole McNamee, one of McFarland’s students, credits her with being one of the sharpest observers. “She could just spot things. She was phenomenal that way,” McNamee shared on the podcast When Fred Met Margaret.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before or since,” Margaret Mary Kimmel, a Ph.D. professor emerita of library and information sciences at Pitt, agreed. Kimmel eventually became a consultant for Mister Rogers and taught a class called Early Childhood and Media, which McFarland helped teach and develop material for. “Margaret talked about how the child interacted with the mother. ‘Did you see her face and the baby’s face? And what about when he started to fuss? How did the mother handle it?’ I learned so much from just watching her watch and describe to the class what was going on between the mother and the baby.”
Fred Rogers may have been the star of the show, but he never waivers from letting children be the center of attention. Even though he cannot see the kids watching at home, his gentle delivery and purposeful pauses helped them feel seen anyway.
5. Look to the helpers.
During times of disaster, Rogers famously told kids to, “Look to the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” This lesson comes from his mother and not McFarland, but McFarland may have been the Platonic ideal of this. Never marrying or having children of her own, she was completely dedicated to her work and yet a uniquely humble helper. There was no ego that compelled her to take credit for a lot of the show, she loved to teach, and gave out ideas like they were warm cookies she baked and delivered to friends regularly. Rogers’ ability to turn her lessons into a successful television programs was just another sign of a job well done. Rogers’ mother taught him to look for the helpers, but it was in McFarland where he found one.