Mr. Rogers was a genius.
Seriously. If you haven’t seen an episode for awhile, spend twenty-eight minutes on PBS Kids and remember what a treasure he was. I mean, you’ll have to ignore the fact that it seems like everyone is stoned, or has taken some weird kind of medicine that makes people move and sing and talk at half speed. And you’ll have to get used to the fact that everything is so, well, so simple. But Mr. Rogers might be just what the doctor ordered for the sickness in our culture, where we inundate children with too much stuff, too much information, and schedules that are too full.
I watched an episode with the boys yesterday, and couldn’t believe the effect it had on them. I was sure they would be bored. Everything about the show is so S-L-O-W. But as they watched, their normally restless bodies stilled, and small grins grew across their faces. They asked to watch another episode today.
I remembered, of course, the gentle way Mr. Rogers entered his house, exchanging his coat for a sweater and his shoes for sneakers. But as I watched it yesterday, it occurred to me just how much our children long for ritual – both large and small. Half of the chaos in our house is because we haven’t spent the time to establish the small rituals of how to clean up your space after you eat, where to put a book when you are not reading it, and what to do on Saturday night so that you’re not screaming at each other trying to get out the door on Sunday morning.
I remembered, of course, Mr. Rogers’ invitation: Won’t you be my neighbor? But as I watched yesterday, it sounded kind of radical. I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you. Think about what it would mean for a child, every child, to know that they are welcome members of our community. What it would mean to invite them to be neighbors, to be neighborly.
I remembered, of course, taking the trolly to the land of Make Believe. What I didn’t remember is that nearly half of the show is spent playing make believe with a few puppets and goofy set. No academic skills were being taught. No one was getting ahead of anyone else by watching it. It was a big waste of time. Unless of course you believe that children are not in a race to get ahead, become insatiable consumers, or become adults.
What I didn’t remember was the emphasis of social skills. Some of you may have read my post on social stories, stories written to help children, especially those on the Austism spectrum, manage feelings and social situations that often overwhelm them. Well, Mr. Rogers is one big social story. In each episode, he gently and clearly explains how to handle being angry, or why people do what they do at restaurants, or how to introduce yourself to someone new. If there is a box set of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, we will be getting it.
Fred Rogers was a man who understood and respected children in ways I rarely see anymore. Maybe he wasn’t a genius; maybe he was a saint.