How to Talk to Kids, According to Mister Rogers

This is a good time to get fluent in Freddish.

by Willa Matthews
Emma Chao/Courtesy PBS; Fatherly; Getty Images

What would Mister Rogers say to kids in these strange, difficult, and uncertain times? Even on the most ordinary days, I don’t always know how to talk to kids, including my own. It can be hard to grasp how a child’s mind works: I’m often thrown by the way my 3-year-old makes logical leaps that are alternatingly brilliant and disjointed, with wild emotions, good and bad, clouding her perception of the world. It can be hard to know what to do with all those knotted feelings and ideas, especially in times of universal stress, with all normalcy temporarily knocked down by the coronavirus pandemic. Kids are just as concerned about friends and family members who may be ill or at risk for COVID-19, while parents do their best to cope with the discontinuity, isolation, and stress of quarantine. How can we talk to our kids when we’re feeling some child-like fear and frustration ourselves? How do we make kids feel safe and secure, while giving them space to share their feelings? How do you speak to a child in their language? And, perhaps more important, how do you understand them when they speak back?

Mister Rogers knew how to talk to kids, in part because the brilliant child psychologist Dr. Margaret McFarland was his mentor. Operating in the shadow of Benjamin Spock during his Pittsburgh tenure and afterwards (and whose work would not age nearly as well), McFarland focused on meaning. She understood that, to a child, a bee is not just a bee. It’s an existential threat. She offered Fred Rogers these insights and a view into the complex interplay of language and feelings, as they’re experienced by children (which she drew partly from her study of mothers’ interactions with their babies). McFarland helped rework most of the scripts for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and the results speaks for itself: The show has quietly captivated children for decades.

Naturally, those around Fred Rogers credited him with inventing the language he spoke. He didn’t. Neither did McFarland. They learned it, and Rogers became the most prominent American to speak it both publicly and fluently. This language came to be known among the crew at KQED, where Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was filmed, as Freddish. It is, in short, the language of children.

Freddish 101

Like any language, Freddish is not simply a collection of words. Grammar comes with it. Manners, too. It’s easy to think that Mister Rogers cast a spell by speaking simply — and that certainly helped — but it was his clarity and inclusiveness that helped him stand apart. The phrasing was always precise, not clouded by inadvertent negativity or stress. The slow pace, defined by all those pauses, allowed room for kids who were watching to think, to look, and to respond.

The Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood staff were so impressed by Rogers’s ability to speak to children that they wrote a translation manual. Written in jest, but extraordinarily accurate, “Let’s Talk About Freddish,” offers nine commandments of communication that collectively serve as a guide to speaking to young children in a way that facilitates understanding and comfort.

The precepts, which appear in Maxwell King’s The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, are as follows…

  1. “State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.” Example: It is dangerous to play in the street. ​​​​​​
  2. “Rephrase in a positive manner,” as in It is good to play where it is safe.
  3. “Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust.” As in, “Ask your parents where it is safe to play.”
  4. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive.” In the example, that’d mean getting rid of “ask”: Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play.
  5. “Rephrase any element that suggests certainty.” That’d be “will”: Your parents can tell you where it is safe to play.
  6. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children.” Not all children know their parents, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.
  7. “Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice.” Perhaps: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to listen to them.
  8. “Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step.” “Good” represents a value judgment, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them.
  9. “Rephrase your idea a final time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.” Maybe: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing.

The manual is an excellent tool to use when interacting with your child. I might not be able to go through the entire nine-step process or have the time — or, let’s face it, the emotional energy — to speak as thoughtfully as Rogers did. But even keeping in mind one guideline, which is what I’m starting with, makes a difference.

Translating Into Freddish

With most languages, translation is a matter of matching similar words with similar functions. Translating to Freddish, however, is about identifying emotions and relationships as well as words. The goal is to communicate a clear sense of purpose and to provide support while also introducing an idea. The evolution of an adult thought into a Freddish expression would look, in our house, something like this….

  1. Put on your goddamn pajamas. I’ve asked you five times.
  2. In case you didn’t hear me the last five times, can you please put on your pajamas?
  3. Can you please put on your pajamas? Ask me for help if you’re having trouble with something.
  4. It’s time to put on pajamas. I’m always here to help you if you’re having trouble with anything.
  5. It’s time to put on pajamas. I can help you if you’re having trouble with anything.
  6. It’s time to put on pajamas. I can help you if anything is difficult to do.
  7. It’s time to put on pajamas. I can help you if anything is difficult to do. It’s good to get cozy and comfy for sleeping.
  8. It’s time to put on pajamas. I can help you if anything is difficult to do. It’s important to get cozy and comfy for sleeping.
  9. It’s time to put on pajamas. I can help you if anything is difficult to do. It’s important to get cozy and comfy for sleeping, so that you sleep well and grow big and strong.

How to Listen to Kids Like Fred Rogers

I have a lot to learn when it comes to talking to my daughter: I sound nothing like Number 9. But I have even more to learn about listening — something that Mister Rogers also knew how to do. Watch any episode and you’ll see and hear Rogers leaving quiet space around his words so kids could respond or make observations; making the most of simple, open-ended comments like “Oh,” which allows kids to draw their own conclusions; asking lots and lots of questions, which gives kids a chance to participate in the conversation and feel — incredibly, for a TV show — that the attention is on them.

The pacing of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood can make the show difficult to watch. It’s slow. But that slowness is a product of discipline and that discipline pays dividends. Adopting that slowness and communicating with purpose is incredibly difficult, but when I manage the trick, I can see my daughter respond. She stops using her favorite daycare expression — “You stepped on my words” — and starts communicating more directly as she senses that I’m listening and not jumping in.

I’ve stopped asking my daughter, “What is it?” when she shows me a drawing. I ask her to tell me about it — and she does. I’m starting to explain more clearly what I ask of her and the reason why. I’m learning to wait while she finds the exact words to explain that her play food is “hair ketchup” that she’s pouring on her head. It can be confusing at times, slow at others, but I understand that it’s my job to sort through what comes out, and Freddish helps. Asking questions helps. Being quiet helps.