Reflections on the Documentary Film About Mr. Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

Sometime around 2012, I saw a viral video on YouTube called Mister Rogers Remixed. The video was by musician, John D. Boswell, who sampled various audio and video clips from the classic children’s television program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and pitch corrected Fred Rogers’ voice to be the melody of a relaxing electronic song. I remember feeling immediately moved.  Not just for the artistry, but by the flood of memories of watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child. I remembered the music on the show, the puppets in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, and that one episode when I got to see how crayons were made. A feeling of warmth came over me as I thought to myself, “Yeah, I really liked Mister Rogers. I really liked that show.”

I hadn’t been reminded of Mister Rogers in years, and I wanted to remember more. I did a google search and learned that he had died in 2003. I didn’t remember hearing about that. I felt sad to know that he was no longer with us. I sent the video around to some friends, and over the next couple of days I asked people if they watched his show when they were kids. People seemed to share my sentiment of fondness for the show, but especially for Mister Rogers himself. I started to pay attention to any time Mister Rogers was mentioned and what people said about him. It was always overwhelmingly positive. There was something striking to me about that. What was so special about Fred Rogers and his program?

A couple of years ago, I noticed a video clip of Fred Rogers circling the internet. It was of him testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications in 1969. In his testimony, Rogers explained that the goal of his program was to provide children with an expression of care emphasizing that they are unique and that they are to be liked just the way they are. He felt that it was critical for children to learn that “feelings are mentionable and manageable” and that his show addressed the inner needs of children by speaking to them constructively about everyday aspects of life, including feelings of anger, depression and family conflict. This moving speech resulted in saving the Public Broadcasting Service from losing its funding. Having watched this from the perspective of a clinical psychology student, I saw that there was much more to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood than I could have ever really known explicitly as a child. My curiosity was peaked further.

When I heard recently that a documentary about Fred Rogers and his children’s show was coming out this summer, I knew I had to see it, and this was before learning that it would come to be heralded as the biggest documentary of the year, and was becoming the top-grossing biographical documentary of all time.

Reviews of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” comment on the poignant aspects of the film such as how it moves audiences to tears, Rogers’ progressivism around issues of race relations, and why the film seems particularly relevant in today’s political climate.

What I would like to comment on here is the philosophy of Rogers made evident in the documentary, and to highlight the psychological concepts in his work.

Respect for Childhood

Mr. Fred RogersRogers studied early childhood education and learned from the leading clinical and developmental psychologists of the day. Rogers’ framework was that the emotional life of the child is critical for their development and that children face important issues in childhood that should not be ignored by adults. In the film, he says, “I would hope that anybody who sets himself or herself out to produce mass programming for children could have the kind of respect of childhood that I have because it’s not all clowns and balloons.” Indeed, this is true. Childhood is not easy on the child.

What Children Need

Rogers believed that children need to feel safe and cared for. He believed that children need adults who will not allow them to feel isolated and that parents should tell their children that they will protect them when there is something in the world that might seem threatening to them. Some people might interpret this as encouraging helicopter parenting, or that parents should swoop in to rescue children at the first sign of trouble. But this is not the message. Rather, the message is that it is important for young children to be made to feel safe so that they may internalize the notion that perceived threats can be dealt with and eventually come to manage anxiety and fear on their own as they grow and develop.

Rogers believed that children should be listened to by adults so that they may have their needs responded to appropriately. He felt that if you really wanted to communicate, the most important thing is to listen.

Rogers believed that children should understand the experiences of their lives, especially those that might seem scary or feel bad. In the film he says, “The most important learning is the ability to accept and expect mistakes and deal with the disappointment that they bring.”

Feelings Are Important

Rogers believed that the feelings of the child were every bit as powerful as our adult feelings, which was a radical position at the time, and he worked hard to understand the feelings and thoughts of others. In the film he says, “Children have very deep feelings, just the way parents do. Just the way everybody does. And our striving to understand those feelings and to better respond to them is what I feel is a most important task in our world.”

Mister Rogers’ Approach

If you watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, you see that Rogers treats children with dignity and kindness. He offers them a balance of play and seriousness as he educates them about simple topics (like how crayons are made) or more complicated ones where he plainly addresses the difference between what is make-believe and what is real, or even death and relationship issues. His neighborhood was not happily ever after. It was a place where there could be conflict, and he was not afraid to talk about conflict. He leaned into it. He used the neighborhood as a place to act out the drama of real life. He thought of his television program as a real relationship between him and the child viewing it. He demonstrated how he listened. He told children that he liked them just the way they were.

And this, I believe, is why children who watched his show, myself included, have such a great affection for him, and why so many who see the film were moved to tears by a story that wasn’t at all sad, but was about a man and a message that is simple but profoundly important: that children are to be given just what they need. Mister Rogers’ mission was to provide that to all the children he could possibly reach through the medium of television. I believe the collective response to this film reflects that we too know this deep down inside.

The film closes with a powerful quote from Mister Rogers that drives it all home.

“I suppose it’s an invitation, ‘Won’t you be my neighbor?’ It’s an invitation for somebody to be close to you. I think everybody longs to be loved and longs to know that he or she is lovable. And consequently, the greatest thing we can do is to help somebody know that they are loved and capable of loving.”

About the Author:

Brandon Kramer
Dr. Brandon Kramer specializes in treating adults with depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties, and family conflict. He has particular experience and interest in working with college students and artists who struggle with self-esteem, self-development, and identity concerns, including gender and sexual identity, and has an affinity for working with individuals of diverse backgrounds.

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