Fred Rogers is a lot of things, but responsible for ruining an entire generation of kids is not one of them. Conservative pundits, which thrive by tearing down, attacked Rogers for supposedly telling millions of kids they were special and entitled. Bunk.
One thing he wasn’t: Rambo. He was not in the Special Forces or a Navy Seal as the myth goes. He didn’t wear a cardigan to hide his military tattoos.
Those television opinion shows could learn a lot from what Fred Rogers used the television medium to convey. I did not grow up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and I never considered that I would be writing a blog to espouse the virtues of the man and his influential children’s’ show. Until now.
Fred Rogers impacted a generation of children, and if you aren’t sure, ask them or their parents. For others of us, a look at the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, will help you understand the man and his mission to support and teach children. For Rogers, an ordained minister, children mattered. He did not talk down to children nor did he mislead them into believing they were entitled or life owed them something. Rogers helped children to cope with life’s challenges and deal with reality, he did not sugar coat anything, his topics included death, racism, loss, learning to deal with being different, bullying and many other issues children struggle to understand and deal with.
Through the years, Fred Rogers and his show were parodied and maligned, food for late night television, and holier than thou pundits with revisionist intentions. The Rogers’ documentary includes the famous Eddie Murphy SNL skit as well as a Second City skit of Mister Rogers in a boxing match and other parodies. Some are funny, some are not. But as a public, and influential figure, it is all fair game. The documentary also covers the anti-gay picketing that happened at his funeral by the Westboro Baptist Church.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a powerful documentary of a soft-spoken, gentle man and his impact on the world. It is an amazing journey through not only his life but of how his show developed a relationship with a generation of children. Fred Rogers was not a perfect man but there are no skeletons in the closet to reveal. While the man you saw on television was pretty much the same as the real man, his quiet nature could be mistaken for someone that could be manipulated or unprepared to deal with a competitive medium and strong forces, such as Congress. His strength was his composure and straightforward ability to define his vision and commitment to helping children. The scene where he testifies to Congress to keep public funding of PBS is a prime example of his power to communicate, defuse conflict and get to the heart of an issue.
Ironic that Fred Rogers, who was a lifetime Republican, received some of his most stinging criticism was from conservative Republicans. He was a man of faith who confronted issues of racism, homophobia, death, divorce and other forms of discrimination. He used faith to unite and promote understanding, not to divide or condemn.
In 1968, Rogers did something quite unique. In response to Robert Kennedy’s assassination, he felt the need to produce a special program to help parents talk to their children about tragic events. Talk about going out on a limb, yet Rogers felt it was necessary to help children get a handle on something happening in the adult world. Remember, this was 50 years ago. Rogers did not believe in hiding reality from children, he just thought it should be done with care and understanding.
I am not an expert on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. You don’t have to be to understand and appreciate his legacy. He did not ruin a generation, he cared about their growing up successfully and knowing that they mattered. What’s wrong with that?