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In a culture suffused with Fortnite, awash in cartoons, and consumed with electronic devices, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood couldn’t be more different than the entertainment programming children watch today. But as my family and I have learned, that’s exactly the argument for giving Fred Rogers and the Neighborhood of Make-Believe another look. We recently started rewatching old Mister Rogers episodes with my kids and, in the process, uncovered six reasons why he is as relevant today as he was 50 years ago when the show first aired.
He Can Still Hold an Audience
I have to be honest, the first time we turned on the show, we weren’t sure how our kids would react. While we try to limit screen time, our kids (age 3 and 6) have been exposed to all sorts of slickly animated children’s shows and cartoons — from high-quality episodes of Dinosaur Train to janky cartoons they found while scrolling through YouTube. We knew Mister Rogers would be something different. Between the puppets, his cardigans, and the simple, often unaccompanied songs, we were worried the show wouldn’t hold their interest.
Their reaction surprised us ⏤ they loved it. Even crazier, they started insisting on watching Rogers over their former favorites. In retrospect, it’s not hard to see why: Contemporary cartoons are often aesthetically flashy but superficial and emotionally empty. Rogers isn’t, and his lessons still matter, even after all these years. Or as Mr. Rogers once said, “Kids can spot a phony a mile away.”
It’s Screen Time, But a Different Sort
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood certainly still qualifies as screen time, but it’s about as guilt-free as a parent can get. That’s in large part due to the format and subject matter of the show. Rogers communicated directly with the viewer, as if he were talking to a real-life neighbor, and he offered kids something that they didn’t even know they needed ⏤ emotional support. He knew that growing up can be hard and confusing and frustrating, so instead of grand storylines that had no bearing on a child’s life, he discussed everyday issues and struggles and how to address them.
In 1969, he explained this approach before a U.S. Senate subcommittee where he was helping defend funding for public broadcasting. After describing then-contemporary animation as “bombardment,” he said: “I’m very much concerned, as I know you are, about what’s being delivered to our children in this country. And I’ve worked in the field of child development for six years now, trying to understand the inner needs of children. We deal with such things as the inner drama of childhood. We don’t have to bop somebody over the head to… make drama on the screen.”
Rogers’ description of the show is exactly what kids get: Someone who talks to them about their lives, asks them questions, and gives them advice. And for a man who spent his career talking on television, it’s incredible just how good at listening Rogers is on the screen. Just watch an episode, and you’ll notice a lack of small talk with his co-stars, or with anyone he interacts with.
His Guests Were Incredible
Once we started watching the show in earnest, I was reminded just how great the guest lineups were. Over its decades-long run, the show featured Yo-Yo Ma, Julia Child, Margaret Hamilton (aka The Wicked Witch of the West), and Koko the Gorilla. Mr. Rogers once even visited Lou Ferrigno on the set of The Incredible Hulk.
The ‘How It’s Made’ Section Still Rules
I don’t know about you, but as a kid, I loved the section where they visited factories to see how things are made. In particular, I loved the episode that showed how crayons were made. As luck would have it, it was one of the first episodes we stumbled across when we found the show online. (It’s Competition #1481 and is available here on Amazon Video.)
Of course, because manufacturing and technology have changed more than a bit since the 1970s and 1980s, most of those sections are outdated, or even outright obsolete. But even that is useful and interesting for children, as it gives them an inkling of just how rapidly technology has moved (and will do so in their lifetime). I work in publishing, and when my son and I watched a section about how books were made, I had a lot of fun explaining to him how things differed (or were the same) now.
Mr. Rogers Didn’t Just Offer Advice for Kids
The show’s focus on emotions and working through the drama of one’s inner life isn’t just useful for kids ⏤ it works for parents, too. I’ll be honest, as a kid growing up in Minnesota, where emotions are often sequestered away like last year’s preserves in a quintessential Scandinavian way, I found dealing with emotions difficult. I know I’m not alone there; it’s a bit of an understatement to say that men aren’t always all that well adjusted emotionally.
Happily, Rogers’ lessons and reassurances apply to adults as well as kids. Here he is again from his Senate testimony:
“I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.” And I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger ⏤ much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire. I’m constantly concerned about what our children are seeing, and for 15 years I have tried in this country and Canada, to present what I feel is a meaningful expression of care.”
It might seem strange for an adult to watch a kids’ program from the 1980s for the message, but good advice is good advice, no matter the medium, or the decade.
It’s All About Caring and Love
The real heart of the show though is Fred Rogers himself, and all the kindness and compassion and decency on display in the 895(!) episodes. Fred Rogers was not simply an actor performing a role for children. On the contrary, he was as giving and caring and full of love in real life as he was onscreen. That, in itself, is reason enough to have your kids tune in.
Brett Ortler is the author of a number of non-fiction books, including Dinosaur Discovery Activity Book and The Beginner’s Guide to Ship Watching on the Great Lakes, Minnesota Trivia Don’tcha Know! His writing has appeared in Salon, on Yahoo!, at The Good Men Project, and on The Nervous Breakdown, among others. A husband and father, his house is full of children, pets, and noise.