When I see a photo of Mister Rogers, I always feel like I’m looking into the eyes of an old friend. Why wouldn’t I? We spent countless hours together when I was very young. When he came in the door, singing about what a beautiful day it was and replacing his sport coat with a cardigan, my day suddenly felt more promising. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a soothing oasis in the middle of my chaotic childhood.
And that was exactly the goal. The real Fred Rogers — an ordained Presbyterian minister and lifelong Republican with two kids of his own — saw children’s television as his ministry. He felt called to bring a message of kindness to children across the country, arriving in their living rooms at a moment — the end of the ’60s — when the world felt like it was falling apart. Rogers died in 2003, but for more than 30 years, he preached a kind of fundamental self-worth, a belief that every person deserved love. It was a message that, in later years, was so misunderstood that critics lambasted him for molding his audience into a bunch of self-important snowflakes. But now that the world feels like it’s falling apart all over again, a new documentary called Won’t You Be My Neighbor? offers a chance to reconsider Rogers’s mission and examine why his message is still so hard for adults to hear.
Sensitive, slender, and dapper, with a faint Pennsylvania accent that echoed Jimmy Stewart’s, Rogers didn’t act like the men you typically saw on TV when his show premiered in 1968. True to his real-life middle name, McFeely, he was a big advocate of feelings, a passion that he wrapped in the starchy stylings of a mid-century man of God. To TV-addicted kids, Rogers was an odd combination of guru and moral authority, Ram Dass meets Jimmy Swaggart, Oprah meets the pope. And yet, I suspect that if I had met him as an adult, all of his openhearted confidence might’ve made me uncomfortable. What sort of adult male speaks that slowly, in such a soft, childish tone? Who makes that much eye contact and talks about love constantly? He says he likes me just the way I am. How does he know I’m not terrible?
I wouldn’t be the only one to feel this way around Mister Rogers. In Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Yo-Yo Ma describes, with still-vivid surprise, the experience of first meeting him: “He put his face about three inches right from my face, and said, ‘It’s so nice to see you, and be with you.’ ”
Rogers’s unusual disposition — often soothing to animals and children, often unnerving to defensive, shut-down, neurotic adults — was always fundamental to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Time seemed to slow down and almost stop in Mister Rogers’s company. Feeding the fish took half a century by today’s manic televisual standards. Rogers would look at you and pause, then muse quietly on how to think about this or that. There was plenty of time for you, the child viewer, to consider what you thought before Rogers moved on. In one episode, Rogers took an egg timer and said to the camera, “Do you want to know how long a minute is?” Then he watched silently for a full minute as the timer ran down.
Most kids’ shows, Rogers believed, were characterized by pointless aggression — bad jokes, pies in the face, grandiosity, violence. His message of silent serenity arrived on the small screen just as the mediated world’s frenetic assault of sounds and images had become bewildering. (“Who needs to hear Muzak everywhere?” I remember my mom asking sometime around 1978.) Rogers embodied a longing for quiet and, more broadly, for peace. He seemed to feel a personal responsibility to translate tragic or bewildering world events into terms children could understand: Early episodes dealt with the fears kicked up by Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination and the Vietnam War. In response to white people beating up black people who tried to swim in desegregated pools, Rogers aired an episode in which he and neighborhood policeman Officer Clemmons, who was black, both put their feet in a tub of cold water on a hot day.
“Love is at the root of everything,” Rogers says at one point in the documentary. “All learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it. And what we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.”
The feeling of someone making space for you is pretty rare for most kids. Many parents spend far too much of their energy holding forth, correcting, and handing down Big Important Lessons that melt into a giant blob of received “wisdom.” Or they’re too distracted by their phones or their jobs or their endless to-do lists to slow down and leave some empty space for a kid to fill. As a parent, sometimes I have to remind myself that even playing games or having fun together isn’t the same thing as offering up time for kids to be seen and heard clearly. Because when you’re a kid, even good friends mostly talk over you and rarely listen. Childhood is lonelier and more isolating than most of us are willing to remember or admit.
But then, most people would rather avoid talking about dark emotions like fear, anger, melancholy, and longing anyway — a problem Rogers’s show always tried to address. And most parents don’t love the idea that children experience a vast ocean of emotions beyond happiness, in part because many of us don’t like admitting that we all contain volatile seas of rage and despair. Rogers’s quiet air of acceptance and love makes us squeamish because it exposes our own conflicted, avoidant natures. His silence challenges us to accept our own emotional complexity in ways that the whirring, buzzing, flashing simulacrum of global culture specifically discourages.
Rogers’s apparent lack of embarrassment and shame about feelings was part of what separated Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood from the frenzied, skin-deep moralism of most children’s programming at the time. That lack of self-consciousness, in the absence of any gimmick or flashy personality tic, was something he shared directly with children, without words. We witness this transfer of confidence so many times in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? that by the time we get to the episode where Rogers sings one of his old familiar songs with a nice boy in a wheelchair, the world seems to melt away:
I like you as you are.
Exactly and precisely.
I think you turned out nicely.
And I like you as you are.
As they sing together, it’s briefly possible to forget about wheelchairs and mean kids at school and friends who sometimes refuse to like you as you are. But that was the essence of Mister Rogers. It wasn’t just that he slowed down and met you on your level. And it wasn’t that he refused to look at the darkness in the world, or that he reassured you that everything was going to be okay — that would’ve felt insincere. Mister Rogers simply took you seriously and made room for whatever you might be feeling. Somehow, this empty space allowed room for the natural joys of being a kid to bubble up and take over.
When you think about all of the powerful adults today who grew up watching this persuasive, peace-loving man when they were small and suggestible, it makes you wonder why the world is such a mess. If anything, Rogers’s simple message feels more revolutionary today than it did 50 years ago. In a culture dominated by the notion that you’re in a constant race and you’re always falling behind, that you always need to work harder and produce more, the space and time to be liked exactly as you are feels like the most precious gift imaginable. The tranquil rhythms of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? remind us how simple the job of being a good friend, a good parent, or a good citizen can be: You offer up your heart, your patience, and your silence, and make some room for whatever your neighbor might bring.
*This article appears in the May 28, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!