He is always seeking to empower children, encouraging them to make up their own stories, imagine their own make-believe kingdoms.... That is [Fred] Rogers’ greatest ambition—to invest each child with power over his own inner life.
roderick townley, poet and fiction writer

a key goal of the program is to help children understand and cope with the world. This coping involves navigating their inner experience in an outer reality. All of the program’s parts are related, which reinforces how young children learn best.

In Mister Rogers’ “real” neighborhood, young viewers are introduced to people working in the community, like musicians, artists, teachers, plumbers, and athletes. Then, experiences, feelings, or issues that Fred raises in the real neighborhood are mirrored in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Mister Rogers’ Trolley is the visual device that provides a transition between the two worlds; Fred never appears in the make-believe neighborhood. In the role of Mister Rogers, Fred helps children to understand the make-believe experience in the “reality” of his living room.

The audience for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is, in fact, both children and their parents. Fred supports family communication by modeling the important role of parents in helping children to differentiate between reality and the world of make-believe.

Adults sometimes wonder just what is so compelling about this soft-spoken man who, by any standard, is an unlikely television “star,” but children know the answer: he speaks directly to them, affirming their self-worth. Fred once said, “I’ve always felt I didn’t need to put on a funny hat or jump through a hoop to have a relationship with children.” Mister Rogers says that children––and childhood—matter.

Even today, Mister Rogers is seen as radical in his willingness to speak with simple, straightforward honesty about feelings. His capacity to relate on the deepest level is unnerving for some––the Neighborhood has been the subject of numerous spoofs––but for others he provides a sanctuary and an oasis. Parents and other adults have spoken of their appreciation for the way the program supports their deepest, most subjective experiences. As George Gerbner, renowned writer and former Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at The University of Pennsylvania, put it, “Mister Rogers turns to the viewer and says quietly, ‘Believe you. It is your story that is important. It is your mind and heart that can make things possible––just because of who you are.’”

If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet, how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.
fred rogers

This simple offering made Fred Rogers a celebrity. In 1967, WGBH-TV in Boston held an open house at which Fred was the featured participant. Provisions were made for a crowd of 500. The 10,000 who showed up overwhelmed the station and cleaned out nearby restaurants. The event outdrew that afternoon's Red Sox game.

I have always called talking about feelings as ‘important talk.’ Knowing that our feelings are natural and normal for all of us can make it easier for us to share them with one another….

It’s only natural that we and our children find many things hard to talk about. But anything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable can be manageable. The mentioning can be difficult, and the managing, too, but both can be done if we’re surrounded by love and trust.

fred rogers

The Centrality of Emotion

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was the first, and remains the outstanding, example of a television program about how to deal with feelings. Nearly every program explores the real feelings and concerns of young children. Fred doesn’t preach. He doesn’t sing or talk about “being nice.” Instead, he explores the range of human emotion. The difficulty of sharing, overcoming fear, and controlling anger are just a few of the complex topics he addresses.

Fred was a master at encouraging “sublimation,” a way of dealing with feelings by channeling them into something creative. He asked trumpeter Wynton Marsalis if he played differently when angry. Marsalis said yes, that playing music helped him work out his anger. Children come to understand that they can do something constructive with their own angry feelings.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood emphasizes transitions––experiences that can be uncomfortable or confusing for young viewers. These experiences can feel seismic to children. So Fred slows down to narrate the shift: with a song, by feeding the fish, or by greeting the delivery man, Mr. McFeely, the messenger bringing news from the outside world. At the beginning of each program, when he arrives, Fred takes off his coat, puts on a sweater, and zips it up. He sits down and, facing the camera, changes his shoes. “That one action,” one critic pointed out, tells viewers that Fred “has a grown-up life of his own somewhere else, but that he has set aside this time to pay full attention to the child’s concerns.”

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood makes us, young and old alike, feel safe, cared for, and valued. Wherever Mister Rogers is, so is sanctuary.
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Grandfather McFeely

let the kid climb on the wall!

I think it was when I was leaving one time to go home after our time together that my grandfather said to me, ‘You know, you made this day a really special day. Just by being yourself. There’s only one person in the world like you. And I happen to like you just the way you are.’ Well, talk about good stuff. That just went right into my heart. And it never budged. And I’ve been able to pass that on. And that’s a wonderful legacy.
fred rogers

fred was especially close to his grandfather Fred Brooks McFeely, for whom Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s “speedy delivery” man, Mr. McFeely, is named. He and his grandfather, who was retired from the McFeely Brick Company, enjoyed their times together. Fred absorbed all the love and attention lavished on him by the older family member:

Oh, I would have such a good time when I would visit him. And he’d even let me send away to Sears for things. At the beginning of my visit, we would send away and invariably the things would arrive just before I would leave.

I remember one day my grandmother and my mother were telling me to get down or not to climb, and my grandfather said, ‘Let the kid climb on the wall! He’s got to learn to do things for himself!’.... What a support he was. He had a lot of stone walls on his place. And you can understand my mother and grandmother, they didn’t want a scratched-up kid. They didn’t want somebody with broken bones. No. But he knew there was something beyond that. He knew there was something more important than scratches and bones. I climbed that wall. And then I ran on it. I will never forget that day.

When in later years Fred was asked about the inspiration for his consistently self-affirming messages to children––including his legendary affirmation, “I like you just the way you are.”—he credited his beloved grandfather.

Dr. Margaret McFarland

listening to children

Childhood isn’t just something we ‘get through.’ It’s a big journey, and it’s one we’ve all taken. Most likely, though, we’ve forgotten how much we had to learn along the way about ourselves and others.
fred rogers

as part of his graduate studies in child development at the University of Pittsburgh, Fred worked directly with children, in groups and one-on-one, at the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center, founded by Dr. Benjamin Spock when he was a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. As co-founder and director of the Arsenal Center, Dr. Margaret McFarland introduced Fred to well-known leaders in the field, including Dr. Spock and famed psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, who was a regular visitor at the Center. Erikson’s landmark work, Childhood and Society, helped Fred to see that throughout our lives we rework feelings from our childhood. McFarland and Erikson were together at the symposium on Childhood and Creativity, coordinated by Saint Vincent College in 1979 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Fred Rogers’ work in children’s television.

At the Arsenal Center, Fred met regularly with children in their preschool rooms. He used his puppets to explore the children’s concerns and preoccupations, and he composed songs that he shared in response to their reactions. Fred realized that in order to communicate with children, it was essential to listen to them. And listening, in turn, required creating an atmosphere that would help children to feel safe talking about their feelings, thoughts, and concerns.

Margaret McFarland eventually became Fred’s closest advisor on the child development content of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. She reviewed the script for each show with him, enriching his outlines with child development principles and key stories to fill out his themes. She once commented, “I think the most important issue…for all people who care about the development of man is to learn most about humanizing our technological progress.” Fred, too, understood that children, like adults, have deep human needs. McFarland helped him frame those needs within the context of children’s age-specific emotional development. She recalled:

When I first knew Fred, he was one of the most pervasively talented people I’d ever known, and I found great delight in knowing him. Because even on the first day we met, it became apparent to me. He was a creative musician. He was a creative dramatist. And he was a creative linguist—he loved languages. These were things I wasn’t. At that time, I was what he wasn’t, too, because my professional career had been invested in the understanding of children and of parenthood.

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