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Health Contributions in History: Mister Rogers, Children’s Mental Health Champion

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“I give an expression of care to each child every day to help him realize he is unique. I end this program by saying you’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you. And I like you just the way you are.” Fred Rogers – Senate Testimony on Public Television 1969.

Some people truly stand out for their paradigm-shifting influence on our behavior and the way we view the world…

Gandhi, the Buddha, Mother Theresa are a few that come to mind.

Here’s another name to consider among this tribe of luminaries – Fred Rogers.

Fred Rogers created Mister Rogers Neighborhood and was the host of all 895 episodes that ran from 1968 to 2001. He composed more than 200 original songs and imagined 14 human and puppet characters.

For more than 30 years, every afternoon during his iconic children’s show, Mister Rogers encouraged his viewers to explore their imaginations, choose love over hate, and feel compassion towards others. Mister Rogers understood how to connect with kids. His technique was simple and sweet — he treated children with dignity by respecting their feelings and what they have to say.

But despite the shows loving tone, Mr. Rogers often dealt with controversial and emotionally poignant topics, tackling subjects like death, war, and divorce. He understood children experienced anger, resentment, fear, and uncertainty. Mental health and the mental wellbeing of children was a topic that Fred wasn’t afraid to champion.


On Mental Health

It seems that Mr. Rogers’s affinity towards kindly understanding was informed by his own childhood and bullying he faced as a shy, overweight eight-year-old. As an adult, he still remembered the hurt he felt, pretending that the bullying didn’t bother him. In the book The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers, Amy Hollingsworth recounts that Rogers “wanted someone to tell him that it was okay to feel bad about what happened, and even to feel sad…”

Fred would often explain that kids have emotions that are as varied and complex as grown-ups, a view that stood in sharp contrast to the prevailing wisdom of the time – that children’s feelings were, at best, trivial.

While speaking to children through the TV, Fred would often help them think about their thoughts and feelings so they could better cope with their emotions. He taught kids that it’s normal to feel angry or sad and not to be ashamed. He also encouraged children to listen to their minds to help sort through their feelings.

He explained his perspective during his 1969 senate testimony:

“I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger ― much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire.”

As beloved as he was, Fred Rogers was not without detractors. Some mental health professionals have looked at his messaging with concern and frustration. Some complained his over-emphasis on feelings and fixation on a child’s self-image, and self-esteem may have had unintended consequences. Is it possible that Mister Rogers is partly to blame for generations overly obsessed with feeling good?


His Legacy

What is Mister Rogers’ enduring legacy? Tom Hanks aptly expresses it in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, “We are trying to give children positive ways to deal with their feelings.” Fred’s messages resonated with children and adults alike, not so much because he created a memorable show, but because he used vehicles children could relate to express genuine compassion.

Fred Rogers’ transcendental kindness is legendary. So much so that decades after his death, we’re still enamored by his gentle approach and the wisdom that guided so many of us in our younger years. From the documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor to the release of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood starring Tom Hanks (both in 2019), we can’t seem to get enough of the man in the white sneakers and cardigan sweaters.



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