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The Theology of Mr. Rogers

Today is the eleventh anniversary of the death of Mr. Rogers.  So many of us who grew up in the seventies remember his slow cadence, his calm demeanor, the way he slowly changed into sneakers and a sweater.  Working at Saint Vincent College, I have gotten to know a little bit more about Fred Rogers.  He based his television neighborhood on his childhood city of Latrobe, the city where Saint Vincent College is located.  Earlier in his life, the current Archabbot of Saint Vincent Monastery worked with Mr. Rogers on his show.  This is one of the reasons why The Fred Rogers Center is on the campus of Saint Vincent College.  Because of this context (and the wonderful little book The Simple Faith of Mr. Rogers by Amy Hollingsworth), I have come to understand a bit of the theology that informed Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.

Concern for the VulnerableIf Mr. Rogers had a phrase that best captured the perspective of his show, it was “You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you.”  Fred was relentless in his affirmation of children.  In fact, the few criticism of his show were that he affirmed children too much, and thus created a culture of “narcissism and attitudes of entitlement”.

Mr. Rogers did affirm children but not as an end in itself.  Mr. Rogers saw children as vulnerable.  They were often subjected to unhealthy forces (like bad children shows) and did not have a strong enough sense of self to navigate them or protect themselves from them.  Mr. Rogers’ affirmation was meant to encourage—“to put courage into”—children such that they could face these challenges and grow safely and securely into adults who could become, in his words, “helpers”. His song on “What do you do with the mad you feel?” expresses this idea well.

What do you do with the mad that you feel
When you feel so mad you could bite?
When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong…
And nothing you do seems very right?

What do you do? Do you punch a bag?
Do you pound some clay or some dough?
Do you round up friends for a game of tag?
Or see how fast you go?

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
And think this song:

I can stop when I want to
Can stop when I wish.
I can stop, stop, stop any time.
And what a good feeling to feel like this
And know that the feeling is really mine.
Know that there’s something deep inside
That helps us become what we can.
For a girl can be someday a woman
And a boy can be someday a man.

The song affirms the anger but directs it in ways that are not destructive and lead to the development of the child into a person that can make the world better.   In short, Mr. Rogers’ affirmation is not a feel good methodology but one that prioritizes human dignity, especially of the vulnerable, so that they might participate and contribute to the world.

SolidarityWhy was Mr. Rodgers so committed to vulnerable children?  It seems, in part, he was a vulnerable child himself.  He was a bit overweight as a child and picked on by bullies.  He sought solace in playing the piano and with puppets, activities which, at times, isolated him from other children.  These experiences did not make him bitter or angry but one who had great sympathy for children and the marginalized. As a result, Fred saw in vulnerability not a weakness to be hidden but an openness for relationships, an opportunity for solidarity.  In almost every show, he exposed his own vulnerability.  Mr. Rogers would ask seemingly silly questions or participate in activities that might seem embarrassing to an adult. My favorite is of Mr. Rogers break dancing.

Through this approach, Mr. Rogers hoped to provide a kind of solidarity with children. He paved the way for them to try things and ask questions that might seem foolish to others.  They could feel confident in doing what Mr. Rogers was willing to do.  When this support for vulnerability is combined with the affirmation that permeated the show, one has an approach similar to what Paul Tough argues for in How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character:  a safe place to try new things, even things that seem risky or foolish.

Social CritiqueFor Mr. Rogers this ability to balance affirmation and vulnerability is so difficult to negotiate because of the pace of society.  The rapidity of life hinders time for rest, reflection, and thoughtfulness.  His show was premised on the idea of slowing down.  If you have not watched Mr. Rogers Neighborhood recently, you would be surprised at how slow it is. From the flashing yellow light at the beginning and Mr. Rodgers’ slow cadence to the length of each scene and the single camera shots, every aspect of each show points to a gentle and calming unfolding of ideas.  Mr. Rogers was providing a counter point to the culture of his time.  He saw in children the need to build up their sense of dignity while at the same time encouraging them to open up and try new things.  Yet, he also saw an environment that hindered this development.  His show thus represented a social critique of this situation but also, as part of society itself, worked toward a new situation conducive to the well being of children.

I say all of this not to argue that Mr. Rogers is the end all and be all of children’s television.  Rather, it is a form of appreciation of his work and the theology that seemed to inform it.  He expressed, in his own unique way and medium, the Christian belief in a God loves us by becoming one of us, affirming our creation and taking on our vulnerability, and calls us to take the time and appreciate this love and our lives.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Jason, Thank you so much for this tribute and reflection. Brings back memories! I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but there is a documentary about Sesame Street called The World According to Sesame Street that is very powerful too. It describes why it was created to make preschool education more available and to promote racial tolerance. It also talks about the international productions including a wonderful segment about the program in South Africa that has a muppet who is living with HIV. Kami, the HIV+ muppet, caused a lot of controversy (in the US) but when you see how the show delicately handles fear, grief, and the care of children you see how valuable this kind of programming is.

    I’ve been wondering if there is an equivalent today. My girls both love Yo Gabba Gabba and it has great songs like “We don’t bite our friends” and “There’s a party in my tummy” (to encourage eating vegetables). I sometimes worry about how plugged in so many kids are to TV/ipads but there are some good programs out there today, so I think it is good when we recognize those.

    Thanks for your post!

  2. The Neighborhood is/was one of the most Christian programs on television, although Mr. Rogers never proselytized by word. More like St. Francis, Fred Rogers preached the Gospel at all times through his actions. And yes, the pace is slow, and my wife and I love that. If you’re having a bad day, grab a 3-year old and watch the episode where Mr. Rogers goes to Wagner’s shoe store. It’s the most fascinating yet restful experience I’ve had through TV in ages.

    Perhaps one thing adults can learn from Fred Rogers is his calm, controlled sense of self. Of course he must’ve gotten angry and impatient in his life, but I believe he practiced certain habits of being that made him not just portray a virtuous life but come to prefer that life through the force of Aristotelian habit.

    Watch how he acts in an adult setting, particularly how he engages a Senator Pastore in the early 70s (it’s available on YouTube). The senator presents himself as a wicked curmudgeon, dismissive toward “Rogers,” almost taunting him with the swaggering shoulders, daring Rogers to try to make him smile. Nonplussed, Mr. Rogers presents his testimony, still granting Sen. Pastore the benefit of the doubt and respecting his time and integrity. Watch it. If you’re like me, you’ll want to smack that senator, but Mr. Rogers is in control of himself. Through his ever kind demeanor he disarms the old koot and wins a supporter instead of pushing a momentary adversary further away. It’s reminiscent of Christ’s encounter with the Samaritan woman. Mr. Rogers chooses what he will be through is actions.

    Someday I hope I become even half the man Fred Rogers was. Now I’m going to be singing “It’s such a good feeling” on my drive home from work!

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