Much has been written since the death last week of Fred Rogers about his impact on the psyches of several generations of American children. There's been much analysis of how he has provided safe harbor for kids struggling to weather a storm of internal confusion and external pain and suffering. And of how it was his life's work to convince children, in mass quantities, that they are unique, and therefore special.
The analysts are right, of course. Through his public-television program, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Rogers spoke directly to little kids in that slow, reassuring, singsong voice and provided an emotional roadmap to help them negotiate a safe route through war, violence, divorce, death and other painful facts of human existence.
For children of healthy families, he was a complement to parents, an extra shot of confidence and self-esteem. For children surrounded by turmoil-at least those who managed to find him-he was a brief, soothing respite from the chaos.
Rogers knew what he was doing. After graduating from college with a music degree, he sought out the new world of television and simultaneously studied in child development courses. What emerged was a TV show that drew from music and child psychology and became, along with Sesame Street, one of the most important and lasting pieces of children's television programming in history.
He knew the science: celebrating imagination and play, communicating in soft tones, singing songs, instilling a sense of self-worth and stressing the importance of expressing feelings only increase the chances a kids will grow up happy and healthy. He also knew that these ingredients also have an immeasurable impact on intelligence. He knew that children need calm more than anything else.
It's no wonder that Rogers, despite (or maybe because of) his extreme goofiness, has come to personify genuine positivity. He is a geeky guru of nurturing. When calamity struck, his council was sought. He spoke at the White House and at endless college engagements.
The only blemish on his record is the annoying Henrietta Pussycat character he created for his Neighborhood of Make Believe-you know, that "meow meow this" and "meow meow that" thing. And that that's even a transgression is a matter of debatable opinion. Anyhow, the wonderfully flawed King Friday XIII, Daniel Striped Tiger and Lady Elaine Fairchilde characters more than made up for the whiny-voiced little cat puppet.
Rogers' death-at the age of 74, he succumbed to stomach cancer-gives us reason to revisit his legacy of unconditional love, as cheesy as that sounds. It reminds us that the more we listen to kids when they have something to say, and the more understanding we shower upon them, the better off we'll all be. And we'll take all the reminders we can get.
Look around at the harsh world we've created for kids. They're the victims of neglect and physical and emotional abuse in alarming numbers. Failure is rarely acceptable, and being different is often grounds for punishment. They're prime targets for a constant, noisy bombardment of advertising. Violence is ever-present on TV. From the news, they learn about how we're about to engage in two wars-with Iraq and North Korea-and about how some children are molested by priests and others are abducted and murdered. For little kids, these stories are understood only in abstract terms, but they are stressful nonetheless.
Mr. Rogers told his young viewers that the adults in their lives do their best to keep them safe from danger. He didn't guarantee that nothing bad would happen to them, but he reassured them that their welfare was at the top of the priority list.
Consider some of society's ills: crime, drug abuse, mental illness, sexual dysfunction, severe anger, teen pregnancy. Then consider the far-reaching results of these vexing issues, and how interrelated they are. Bad behavior generally stems from unhealthy homes, which are often created by unloved children who become problem adults.
It would do us all some good to keep Fred Rogers' lessons in mind.