The documentary on Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, is making its way out of theaters. Go see it, even if the kids stay home; it’s a wonderful opportunity to reflect on how Mr. Rogers’ Gospel-inspired invitation to be a “neighbor” to one another influenced a generation…and, just maybe, a call to take up his mission once again.
by Jen Schlameuss-Perry
Warning: Spoilers? Sort of? I talk about the movie, but I think a lot of it is common knowledge. It won’t ruin anything for you.
Mister Rogers taught me how to waltz. He helped me to overcome my fear of the Incredible Hulk. He taught me how mushrooms are grown. He scared the snot out of me with his creepy puppet, Mrs. Fairchild. But, most of all, Mister Rogers spoke a truth to my young heart every day that I needed to hear every day. While the movie is simply called, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, I added a “please” to this article because this documentary tracks the development and philosophy of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which was really one man’s response—his plea—to a world out of control, to assist children in navigating that world with a sense of safety and purpose. Just as a priest’s First Holy Communion homily is geared to the kids, every word is crafted for the adults, too; Mister Rogers invited everyone the television waves reached to be their best selves—for their own sake, and for the sake of the children.
This documentary covers a lot of interesting ground; it lets us in on how Fred Rogers came to envision the show, what the message meant to him, the struggles he experienced—both personal and within the television industry—to keep it going, and the impact he prayed it would make in a young generation of children who were encountering so many scary, uncertain and painful circumstances on a daily basis.
When Fred saw TV for the first time, which he experienced as an abomination, he took a detour from his seminary training to lay the foundation for the show that would become Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. After giving the first run a try, he took a break from the show to complete his ordination to the Presbyterian Church. In his studies, he met people who were integral to how he would present this show to children; taking psychological development and his own ministerial principles into account, and developed a strong conviction that children needed an entertainment option that would offer comfort, formation and encouragement in their daily lives. He recognized TV’s amazing potential to make people’s lives better, and was scandalized by the widespread misuse of the medium that he saw whenever he turned it on.
To me, Mister Rogers was the Protestant Fulton Sheen. I’m actually pretty sure that the two of them hang out together in heaven. Embracing a new evangelization and his own prophetic role as a baptized, ordained minister, he brought the message of Christ to young hearts. Although he never talked explicitly about God, every lesson he shared was rooted deeply in the Gospel, with the intention of helping children to see everyone as their neighbor, and themselves as beloved and worthy of a mission of forgiveness and kindness.
I never put my finger on it until I was sitting in the theater and a commentator mentioned that Mr. Rogers loved silence and often deliberately worked it into the show, but there was something about Neighborhood that was like church. I’m not a sentimental person, and I’m not being overly sentimental here—but I realized that one of the things I loved about the show as a little one was that what I heard at church, in Sunday school, in religion class…all of those lessons were given flesh on that simple PBS production. There was regular life, relationship, calm and quiet, music, and application of the things my priests and teachers were trying to get across to me all bundled up in a great little thirty minutes.
And he told me, and every weird, bullied, lonely, frightened child that we were loved, and worthy of love simply because we were. He showed us how to interact with people who were different, and how to appreciate them as loved, and worthy of love simply because they were. Because of my Catholic upbringing, I was able to fill in the blank that what they were was children of God. He was very careful with his language, and didn’t tolerate ad libbing because his choices were intentional—intentionally Christian.
Mr. Rogers wondered if his effort had made the impact he hoped for—and many people have debated it. They showed a clip from a “news” show where pundits were discussing its impact and one of them claimed that the current generation of adults who behave in a very entitled and lazy way have Mr. Rogers to blame. Fred Rogers told us that we were perfect just as we are, so nobody was inspired to do anything. Of course, this is straight-up nonsense. Every show, besides telling the kids that they were loved and would be cared for, offered them ways that they could help others to feel the same.
But, just as it is with Church, if there was nothing at home backing up the prophetic message of Mister Rogers, there was no soil in which the seeds he planted could grow. If he taught me that black feet and white feet could be in a pool together on a hot day, or disabled children could be as good friends and have something to offer society as much as a “regular” kid, or that every job an adult might have had dignity and was worth learning about, or that feelings were something to be cherished and honored; and then I have no foundation at home to nurture those truths, I will default to what I see around me. If I learn from Mister Rogers (or my parish priest) that everyone is lovable, and that peace and forgiveness should be our practice and our goal, but I don’t experience that at home, I will default to discord and grudges. Lucky for me, many of my experiences with adults meshed with what he said, and I found inspiration from him every day.
I loved this movie, and it helped me to appreciate what Mister Rogers set out to do more than I already, in my child’s heart, did. I was misty throughout the viewing both because of what he had always meant to me, and because of how his gentleness influenced the way I have tried to live. This deliberate reflection—because that’s really what this movie was—caused me to evaluate how I have applied the lessons he offered to me in my youth. It was an invitation to recapture that gift, and to hear again the lessons that he shared so that I can be more intentional in my responses to a world out of control, and to help people navigate it.
Is it appropriate for your kids?
Not really. Any red-blooded American child would find this “boooorrrrrriiiiinnnnggggg.” It also deals with some touchy themes that are spoken about in a very frank manner, which included some rough language. I was actually surprised at some of the language—I didn’t think Mister Rogers would have approved of it. The movie previews beforehand were also aimed at a more “mature” crowd. I took my 15-year-old son, and was thoroughly surprised that he enjoyed it. He also got a good deal of insight from it. I think it would be good for teens, and great for parents, grandparents, clergy, religious educators, secular educators—anyone who works with children. But, not children themselves. Show them old episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Here’s the trailer for a preview of what you will see:
A few conversation starters:
- What impressed/stood out for you most from this documentary? What surprised you most?
- Did you watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood when you were small? What did it meant to you? What sort of lessons did you learn from it? How creepy did you find some of those puppets?
- Why do you think Mister Rogers was criticized in the public forum? Why do you think they tried to categorize him in ways that didn’t reflect who he really was?
- Did you see the Gospel reflected in the show when you were little? Do you see it now?
- Did anything that you saw on the show stick with you throughout your life?
- What was your favorite episode?