Why Mr. Rogers is a Genius

foodforthoughtI have some memories of watching Mr. Rogers when I was a kid, but they’re pretty vague. I remember the Land of Make-Believe, and I remember him putting on a sweater, and that’s about it. But the more I find out about Mr. Rogers as an adult and as an early childhood professional, the more I think he’s amazing.

Check out, for example, this collection of clips. Periodically Mr. Rogers had a “How It’s Made” segment, where he would show how something ordinary is made, visiting the factory and looking around and asking questions. (If you’ve got 8 minutes to spare right now, go watch the segment about graham crackers—it’s the best of the bunch.) Watching him tour these factories and things is a kind of meditative experience—if you’re stressed out, these are guaranteed to calm you down. But for kids, I think they’re actually something quite special.

For one thing, while Rogers’ dialogue might sound inane to adults, it’s an excellent reflection of what children might be thinking or noticing. When he says, “Boy, it sure is fun to watch the mixer going around,” he’s showing children that their ideas and feelings are reasonable and shared by others. When he says things like, “I wonder what happens to the dough next,” he’s showing children that their questions are reasonable. When he asks, “What’s that part there?” or “How does that work?” he’s giving children a model for how to notice things, and how to ask questions about their observations. With his quiet external monologue, he’s showing children how to have their own internal monologue—a crucial piece of cognitive development.

He’s also providing children a model for social development. The way he displays positive social interactions—saying please and thank you, smiling and shaking hands—make it very approachable for children. And you see the people around him respond in kind—Rogers brings out a friendliness and helpfulness in those around him, and it gives children a positive model of how people interact with each other. Even better, Rogers provides a splendid model of how conversations work (a model many adults could benefit from)—in the graham cracker segment, when walking between parts of the factory he asks his guide about her work and her childhood, and how she feels about working at the factory, showing how people can have productive conversations about ordinary things.

In a completely different realm, after the tragic shootings in Sandy Hook this fall, I came across this essay of Rogers’ on talking to children about tragic events in the news. (Note: As of this moment, the Rogers’ Institute Website seems to be having some trouble—hopefully they’ll fix the link soon.) Rogers’ advice to families and caregivers is compassionate and sane. He helps you focus on children’s perspective, and urges you to listen before responding, acknowledge emotions, provide comfort and safety, and meet fear with honesty and support. And of course there’s this classic quote: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers, so many caring people in this world.” What a wonderful response.

In general, the more I see and hear of Mr. Rogers, the more I admire the way he validates and respects children, and encourages others to do the same. What an important perspective he brings.

* * *

Oh, and one more thing. While this is not particularly early-childhood-related, I have to share this video of Mr. Rogers accepting his lifetime achievement Emmy. You can skip to about 1:15 (you don’t need to hear Tim Robbins’ intro or stare at his silly turtleneck)—and then be prepared to spend two minutes getting misty and feeling good about yourself and the people who brought you up. Just saying.

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One thought on “Why Mr. Rogers is a Genius

  1. Susan Schweik April 10, 2013 at 2:24 pm Reply

    Not to mention his great testimony in defense of PBS in Congress:

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