Sometimes a Hero Wears a Cardigan, Not a Cape …

If you’re looking to see an uplifting movie, may we suggest Won’t You Be My Neighbor? This bio-doc about Fred Rogers, the creator of a children’s TV show that launched 50 years ago, has become a runaway hit. A soft-spoken Presbyterian minister from Pittsburgh who devoted his life to treating children with respect and kindness, Rogers always thought his life story would be “the most boring story ever.” Yet for the millions of Americans who watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which ran on PBS from 1968 to 2001, he felt like a treasured member of the family.

Fred Rogers was fascinated by television the moment it arrived in the 50’s, and first worked as a puppeteer on a local children’s show in Pittsburgh. He left to pursue a graduate degree at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and also studied child development with Margaret McFarland at the University of Pittsburgh. He would bring all his academic training and TV experience to bear to create Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Knowing that television was a uniquely powerful medium—“What we see and hear on the screen becomes who we are,” he says in one clip—his show had a very clear purpose: “Let’s make goodness attractive.”

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was distinct from the children’s programming on the air in 1968. The set was already old-fashioned, and the opening was a cheerful ritual that remained unchanged for more than 40 years: Mister Rogers came in, put on a cardigan, changed into deck shoes and fed his fish. His demeanor was unfailingly gentle and calm, and he always spoke to the camera as if he were speaking directly to a child. The pace of the show was slow, as Rogers believed that ordinary life could be interesting for children. He would quietly demonstrate how an apple peeler worked, or sit on the floor and watch a tortoise amble by.

The show’s soothing rituals and Roger’s unfailing gentleness were endlessly parodied, both lovingly and critically, over the decades. But his plainspoken manner could have a radical effect, even on adults. In his testimony to Congress in 1969 to defend funding for public television, Rogers was faced with much opposition. In his polite, measured way, Rogers read the lyrics to his song “What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel?” into the Congressional Record. “It’s great to be able to stop/ When you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong,/ And be able to do something else instead./ I can stop when I want to/ Can stop when I wish.…/ And what a good feeling to feel like this.” His brief speech saved PBS.

Rogers wanted to help children name their emotions and learn what to do with them. The documentary shows that expressing emotions was tricky for Rogers; we have a glimpse of a childhood marked by illness and some bullying, and he notes that his only outlet for his anger as a child was playing noisily on the piano. So Rogers often talked to children about difficult feelings and how to manage them through music and puppets. Daniel Striped Tiger was the puppet who expressed vulnerability, the one who sang, “Sometime I Wonder If I’m a Mistake.” (“Others I know are big and are wild/ I’m very small and quite tame/ Most of the time I’m weak and I’m mild/ Do you suppose that’s a shame?”) Through songs, Rogers could also tell children how to be good without seeming preachy: “Cleaning up a room can say I love you./ Hanging up a coat before you’re asked to/ Drawing special pictures for the holidays and/ Making plays./ You’ll find many ways to say I love you.”

Rogers took children’s fears very seriously, and talked about them directly so children could feel more in control of them. He was also aware that his own medium could be frightening, when children saw disturbing events on TV and had no one to talk to about them. From the first week of the show, Rogers was using the puppets in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe to reframe upsetting news stories so children could understand and cope with them.

The most moving scenes in the documentary are those in which Rogers speaks directly with children. He always tells them to be proud of their uniqueness, to believe in their own worth and to understand that others are inherently worthy too. They often wanted to sing with him: “But it’s you I like./ The way you are right now,/ The way down deep inside you—/ Not the things that hide you …” His model of showing respect for children echoes our mission at The Children’s School: to take their feelings seriously, and to strive to make them feel seen and loved as the unique individuals they are.

Rogers’ message was that being good—humane, compassionate and kind—is the goal, and that showing love is the most valuable gift we can give. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? gives this message a visual form by asking the people interviewed for the film—Rogers’ family members, colleagues and friends—to think silently for a minute about a person who loved them. Their eloquent, wordless facial expressions, one after another, make the point—that is, if you’re not tearing up so much you can hardly see the screen.

You will want to be kinder after watching it.