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3 Times ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ Told Kids Hard Truths About Life

Fred Rogers wasn't one to sugarcoat the realities of life. Kids were better for it.

PBS via YouTube

We like to think of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a soothing, calm show. Which, for the most part, is true. Watching an episode was the equivalent of taking off your own shoes, putting on your most comfortable sweater, and relaxing with a good friend. But, the soothing, meditative quality of Fred Rogers was not designed to envelop kids inside of fantasy. Fred Rogers was not Captain Kangaroo or Ringo from Shining Time Station. He was more like a therapist, and that means he was there to tackle some hardcore truths about life.

One of the most enduring legacies of Fred Rogers is the fact that he never once talked down to children about their feelings. While the fantasies of Fred Rogers are colorful and cute, he was always keenly aware that real feelings are ridiculously messy. And, because of this, he made a decision in nearly every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: never lie to kids.

The end result of this decision is that the show repeatedly broke new ground. Depicting the world as it is isn’t easy, especially when we try to protect our children from things they’re not ready for. But, Rogers walked this tightrope with intelligence and style. Here are three of the most hardcore lessons Mister Rogers taught to kids about death, divorce, and the limits of make-believe, and why these messages still last today.

Death Is Real, But Life Must Go On

In episode 1101, “The Death of a Goldfish,” Mister Rogers tackles death head-on. The episode begins with Rogers finding a dead goldfish in his famous fish tank. Then he buries it. And then, after that, talks to the audience about a time when a dog died whe he was a kid. Look. This wasn’t the Mister Rogers version of Pet Sematary, but it was pretty damn close! This episode was so iconic, that there’s even a reboot version of it in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood called “Blue Fish is Dead.”

Parents Sometimes Do Break Up Forever 

In episode 1476, Fred ruminates on the idea of marriage and divorce. Though this episode celebrates the fact that Mr. McFeely has been married for a long time, it also introduces the reality of divorce in a very serious way. In classic Rogers fashion, he matter-of-factly explains why some parents divorce and why it’s okay to be sad about it. It’s a masterclass in explaining a tough topic to children. All the more impressive is that he does so without cutting corners. To discuss divorce seems normal in hindsight because divorce is so common now. But when this episode aired in 1981, it was extremely rare to approach the topic. Obscuring any facet would’ve blunted the lesson and deadened its importance.

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The World of Make-Believe Has Limits 

For the thousands upon thousands of young viewers who watched Mister Rogers Neighborhood,  his house was real. He lived there. Why else would he take off his jacket and change shoes upon entering? The puppets were explicitly fake, but the house seemed so real. This is why in episode 1530, it was such a shock to viewers when Rogers dropped the biggest truth bomb ever: He’s on TV. It’s a TV house. He’s a TV actor. Rogers explained that he had a whole other real house. Hear that? That’s the sound of young minds everywhere being blown.

For so much a child’s life, fantasy and narrative help to make the real world a little less scary. For many of us, Fred Rogers was a big part of that support mechanism. So, when one of the biggest, and kindest people in all of kids’ entertainment, admits that he too is creating fantasy it’s pretty hardcore. Hearing that Mister Rogers doesn’t really live in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood can be devastating. But, brilliantly, that’s kind of the point. This metafictional lesson is far more hardcore than death and divorce. With this episode, Rogers was saying, “look, even I’m lying a little bit.” He was telling kids the truth about fantasy; that TV and make-believe, while wonderful, are not real life. Rogers knew that it was important for kids to understand that a curtain exists and sometimes you have to peek behind it.

Admire Fred Rogers? We do too. That’s why Fatherly has released Finding Fred, a narrative podcast about the ideas that animated Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and what they mean in 2019. Listen to the show on iTunes or online to hear journalist Carvell Wallace grapple with the legacy of a kind, but complicated man.