Fred Rogers, the congenial, gentle and thoughtful children’s television host, has been gone for nearly twenty years. But once upon a time, beginning in the mid 1950s until his death in 2003, he was the soothing voice in a sweater – helping the next generation navigate their feelings, fears and even their frustrations.
“Mister Rogers” ascent coincided with a rapidly changing culture. His simply produced show with its modest sets and low production values was actually quite profound and groundbreaking, especially in the early years. “The Neighborhood” addressed topics as diverse as divorce, children with special needs – and even race relations.
Back in 1975, Fred Rogers said his goal was “to help children as much as I can to cope with what may come in life.”
But if Fred was needed back then – and he was – his type is needed all the more today.
An ordained Presbyterian minister, the public television host once wrote to a mother in Pennsylvania:
“I hope that the love communicated through our program is a witness of our own, and is able to reach people who would not be able to hear a more overtly spiritual message.”
The onslaught of social media, movies, video games and smartphones has created a dangerous and destructive environment for children. More than half of the youth in America have a cellphone by the time they’re eleven – and kids as young as kindergarten are regularly playing violent video games and consuming intense digital content.
There are consequences to every type of behavior – especially destructive ones like ingesting a steady diet of toxic technology.
In contrast, Fred Rogers spoke softly and slowly. His actions and activities were positive and uplifting. He never appeared to be in a rush and was always interested in what a child was thinking, dreaming, or doing. He tried to see things from a young person’s point of view. And he recognized, celebrated, and protected the innocence of children’s minds.
The blatant and unapologetic attack on children’s minds is what many of us find so maddening and upsetting. Sometimes it’s subtle, like a passing scene in a commercial or show – and other times it’s more obvious. And there are plenty of times when you have no warning that it’s coming your son or daughter’s way.
Just last week, my family and I were at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. We were stopped alongside the road to watch the lighting of the famed monument one evening. It was a delightful night. But then some character in the lineup of cars began walking alongside the parked vehicles screaming for motorists to turn off their lights. Huffing past our car and its opened windows, he dropped an f-bomb and took the Lord’s name in vain. He frightened our youngest – and other children, too, I’m sure. It was so unnecessary.
The coarseness of the culture is growing exponentially. From bad language at national monuments, or at neighborhood supermarkets, to profanity on bumper stickers and even t-shirts, it’s everywhere. It’s not enough to turn off the television set, although that’s a good place to start. Just look up, and it’s often staring you in the face.
We desperately need people like Fred Rogers to model the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Our children are watching.
Organizations like Focus on the Family are committed to creating healthy, encouraging, educational and entertaining children’s programming. As just one example, for the past three-plus decades, our award-winning Adventures in Odyssey (AIO) radio program has been helping to fill children’s minds with biblically sound and uplifting thoughts.
Fred Rogers never talked about the AIO gang on his program, but I can say with great confidence he would have enjoyed their company and their values – and vice versa.
Here’s to a beautiful day in your neighborhood.