With the release of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” inquiring minds want to know: What did I think of Mr. Rogers?
I never met the man, but in the early days of my fatherhood, I watched Rogers’ show enough to figure out that as was also the case with Captain Kangaroo and other children’s television personalities he was working a formula that obviously appealed to young ones.
I’ve never been a fan of television shows pitched to children, but I made a slight exception when it came to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” My concession had more to do with Rogers’ production than his content. Instead of the usual three cameras (a technique usually credited to Desi Arnaz of Desilu Productions), Rogers used only one. One camera following him around meant that unlike Sesame Street and cartoon programs, MRN was “flicker-free.”
Back in the ‘80s I pointed out that the incessant flicker of television programs — once every two to three seconds, on average — meant that children’s brains were being bombarded with a form of visual stimulation that was not replicated in the real world. This, I surmised, was shortening their attention spans and contributing significantly to the dramatic rise in behavior problems involving impulsivity and inability to concentrate. It gave me some perverse pleasure to be ridiculed by ADHD “experts” like fellow psychologist Russell Barkley, who likened my views to Scientology (don’t ask, because I have yet to figure that out). It gives me even more pleasure to report that according to the best research, I was spot on.
Indeed, watching MRN was calming. If calming children and reassuring them that the world was a safe and interesting place was all Rogers really accomplished, bully for him. I also approved of his refusal to teach anything academic. If all preschools were built on Rogers’ model, the world would be a better place and children would do much better once they got to “real” school.
Although his target audience was preschool children, parents were certainly influenced by Rogers’ gentle yet playful approach to children. He became, to many parents, a childrearing ideal — more specifically, the ideal dad.
And right there is where Rogers and I part ways. Although it may well have been unintentional on his part, Rogers boosted the popularity of the post-1960s psychological parenting paradigm and helped give rise to the notion that the best dad is first and foremost a buddy to his kids, especially boys.
Rogers was the epitome of the adult who strives, first and foremost, to be a friend to children. In Rogers’ neighborhood, no distinction existed between adult and child; children were, in effect, Rogers’ peers. Instead of presenting himself as an authority figure, Rogers was more like a loving older brother, there to guide his young sibs into the world. I’m certainly not suggesting that Rogers is responsible for the current ubiquity of adults who want to be liked by children, but he certainly contributed to the acceptance of an idea that has seriously damaged discipline in both the home and classroom.
Rogers also furthered the notion that children will cooperate if adults will only give them, patiently, explanations for their decisions and instructions. Not so. Given such explanations, no matter how patiently, children argue, and children who argue tend to throw tantrums when they don’t get their way and when children throw tantrums, no one is happy, and moms and dads get into fights.
I don’t think Fred Rogers ever told the children in his audience that they should obey their parents and accept “no” for an answer. That, in my estimation, would have been much better by far than one camera.