Lessons for Today from Mister Rogers

(This entry is adapted from an article by Shea Tuttle published by the Greater Good Science Center)

I remember Mister Rogers vividly from my childhood – eating lunch on TV trays sitting on the floor of our living room with a friend, seeing the puppets and listening to the songs. At the time, of course, I had no idea how powerful and lasting the lessons he taught could be. But at this moment in our nation, it seems many of us are turning to him again. The success of the documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, points to the relevance of this man who was at once gentle and fierce, quiet and radical. In particular, the messages put forth in his show speak loudly to our troubled times.

  1. All feelings are okay. Fred Rogers worked closely with child psychologists throughout his career. His longtime collaborator, Dr. Margaret McFarland said, “Anything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable is manageable.” Everyone experiences feelings that are at times difficult and confusing, even children. Mr. Rogers helped teach children to name and speak their feelings, and in this way to begin to understand them.
  2. Feelings do not excuse bad behavior. One of the emotions Mr. Rogers spoke about was anger. Unlike many adults, who want children not to have that feeling, Mr. Rogers understood and taught that negative emotions can be managed safely and productively, and that controlling our behaviors can lead to feelings of empowerment and growth.
  3. All people are complex – those who are like us, and those who are different from us. Perhaps one of the most seemingly insurmountable problems of this age of social media is the “siloing” of information and people. As we attend more and more to the ideas and opinions of those like us, those who hold different viewpoints are often reduced to caricatures. Mr. Rogers emphasized that we all have many sides, and that we need to attend to what is under the surface of others.
  4. Caring for the most vulnerable is our responsibility. In addition to his work on television, Fred Rogers worked tirelessly to help children, and adults, in need. His work with prisons, hospitals, courts, and educators is work that needs to be emulated and continued.
  5. Individual, personal actions can have global repercussions. One of the most radical moments on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood occurred, literally, in his backyard. On a summer day, Mr. Rogers invites the neighborhood police officer to sit with him and soak his feet in a wading pool. This most basic act of neighborliness with a character played by a black, gay actor was in its own quiet way, as loud a statement as those of people marching for civil rights.
  6. We need to care for ourselves as well as others. The public face of Mr. Rogers was of a man who spent his energy caring for others. But privately, he cared for himself through eating well, exercising, and spiritual practice. We can all learn from this.
  7. We are all neighbors. Despite our differences, despite our disagreements, we all occupy this place together, and we are all responsible for showing each other mercy and care. If at this moment there are any lessons more difficult and important, I can’t think of them. Thank you, Mister Rogers.

Marcia Mofson, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist