Words Mattered to Mr. Rogers

The Atlantic had a wonderful article last week that looked at the rules Fred Rogers used when talking with children.

He insisted that every word, whether spoken by a person or a puppet, be scrutinized closely, because he knew that children—the preschool-age boys and girls who made up the core of his audience—tend to hear things literally. He took great pains not to mislead or confuse children.

Arthur Greenwald, a former producer of the show, shares the following example.

During a scene in a hospital a nurse inflating a blood-pressure cuff originally said “I’m going to blow this up.” Greenwald recalls: “Fred made us redub the line, saying, ‘I’m going to puff this up with some air,’ because ‘blow it up’ might sound like there’s an explosion, and he didn’t want the kids to cover their ears and miss what would happen next.”

Rogers was extraordinarily good at imagining where children’s minds might go. For instance, in a scene in which he had an eye doctor using an ophthalmoscope to peer into his eyes, he made a point of having the doctor clarify that he wasn’t able to see Rogers’s thoughts.

As another example of the care and thought he put into each show, Hedda Sharapan, one of the staff members at Fred Rogers’s production company, Family Communications, Inc., recalls Rogers once halted taping of a show when a cast member told the puppet Henrietta Pussycat not to cry; he interrupted shooting to make it clear that his show would never suggest to children that they not cry.

Rogers interacted extensively with academic researchers, including the emerging field of child development, and applied the ideas he learned from these experts to his show.

I did not grow up watching Mr. Rogers, his TV show did not begin airing until 1968, when I was 11 years old. I did get a chance to watch a few episodes when our kids were younger, but I really did not know much about him.

(I do remember someone telling me that Fred, who lived in Pittsburgh, swam laps at the same pool I did while I was at Carnegie-Mellon from 1979-81. I knew the name, but not much else, and so I never did anything with that knowledge. If I knew then what I know now, I think I would have made an effort to at least introduce myself to him, and thank him for what he has done for children. So perhaps it was better, for Fred’s sake, that I didn’t really know much about him back then.

But hopefully that will change a little now, with the release of the documentary about Fred Rogers titled, “Won’t You By My Neighbor?”.  The movie was just released this past weekend, and it has an extraordinary score of 99% from the critics on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 97% from the audience.

Here’s the trailer:

As I learn more about him, Mr. Rogers seems like the kind of person I would want to aspire to. He was full of kindness, he stuck to his principles, he was comfortable with who he was, he wasn’t flashy, and he was loved by all. Who wouldn’t want to be like that?

Once I see the movie, I’m sure there will be another post about Mr. Rogers.

And here is a great profile of Mr. Rogers from CBS Sunday Morning


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