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Won’t you be my neighbour ?

Years back, I found Mr. Rogers’ television show for kids slow and tedious, his repetitive sweaters and sock puppets. Yet I also thought Sesame Street a rush of characters, often pondering how teachers would be able to compete with the dazzling two minute segments of colours, charming puppets, etc. I suppose we see life from our own jaundiced perspective and these competing notions of too slow or too fast reinforced in me the Ralph Waldo Emerson mantra of taking the middle road. But truthfully, having to choose in those years, I, and my children chose the flash, dazzle and puppetry of Sesame Street, not comprehending the perhaps deeper more soulful rationale embraced by Fred Rogers.

However, the recent documentary Won’t you be my neighbour made me realize that Fred Rogers had purposely slowed down the world to thoughtfully and calmly incorporate children into it, rendering it comprehensive to wee folk. From Pittsburgh and in league with the best new thinkers of the time, Drs Brazelton and Spock, he worked to open up relationships and encourage children’s voices and feelings. Outspoken against the silliness and violence in Howdy Doody and Saturday morning cartoons shows, his segments attempted to explain the inexplicable in gentle terms: a week on death; a discussion of the meaning of the word, “assassination” when Bobby Kennedy was gunned down; integration with the show’s Officer Clemens in a plastic tub when in the outside world, bleach was poured into swimming pools in which black people swam. Big questions for little people who were beginning to comprehend the wide world of confusion and wondering what to make of it.

I found the documentary wise, engaging, and perhaps a bit slow mimicking Roger’s measured approach as he rejected a life at the seminary for writing, acting and producing Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood . He realized the importance of the new medium, television. His insight into its power and impact on developing minds resulted in a show that should not have succeeded for it contravened all qualities of accepted television. I watched and listened to Rogers’ make his case to Senator Pastore during Richard Nixon’s reign in order to ensure PBS continued financial support as he cut quickly to the chase: he quoted a little song,”What to do with the mad that you feel,”about children expressing their anger appropriately and guiding it towards control . Voice shaking, but simply, Rogers’ brief explanation ensured the financial support for his show’s programming.

So many years later when apparently we, the psychologists, most professions are in deed aware of technology’s manipulation of youth, and I am disgruntled by television’s manipulation that has veered from Rogers’ simple straight forward truths. Watch any cartoon, any superhero upon which children’s eyes are riveted and you will be cast back to those first days of explosions, car crashes, confrontations, swirling body parts and worse. Our kids cheer for the overloaded actions of death and destruction, the extensive animation extending, twisting, exploding the gore. Yes, it is fantasy, but fantasy that reaches deep into the psyches of our young, especially as it is reinforced time and again, shockingly normalizing it. When Rogers heard of a youngster hurtling himself to death because he believed he could fly like Superman , Rogers focused his show to explain to his young audience the difference between real and make- believe. Today, figures/ humans easily morf from one state to another, kids embracing the transition, apparelled in costumes and weapons.

Rogers’ defence of childhood likely arose from his own memories of childhood as a fat kid bullied, a sick kid confined to bed, living in his own imagination, a child constantly reminded not to express his emotions by his parents, just behave. Rogers never lost that inner child, wanting above all, that every child be loved and listened too, accepted for themselves. Watching his real interactions, and the long lines that formed to meet him, and hearing a disabled child share a duet with him underscored the passion and authenticity of the man. No flashing lights, fancy doodads, just that handmade sweater and a look focused and an ear attentive. Full attention given.

The documentary reminds us that selling to kids should not be the motive behind television, that the early days that catapulted Sesame Street and Rogers Neighbourhood to fame were centred on making the world a better place for kids: for the poor, to equalize opportunities, to promote principles that concerned reading, education and healthy growth in mind and spirit. Ironically what has been learned about childhood evolution has been scorned and forgotten in the name of profit. It’s a sad tale when research is purposely perverted for financial goals.

Do we hear kids laugh when they watch tv shows today? Yes. Do we perhaps join in their laughter at the bad guy trounced or the explosion? Do we ever think maybe a slower attempt to demonstrate reconciliation through friendship or compromise might be better than swords or spaceguns blazing? Maybe. Some of us, the more thoughtful of us, do we not want to fight with the child occupied in the Ipad while we complete our own work, or not want to dislodge the child from the screen, fearing an outburst. Likely, we figure another 10 or twenty minutes won’t hurt and we are, after all, such busy people…

Rogers wrote,

If the day ever came when we were able to accept ourselves and our children exactly as we and and they are , then I believe we would have come very close to an ultimate understanding of what ‘ good ‘ parenting means.

– Mr. Rogers in Mr. Rogers Talks with Parents

So put down your Iphones, push aside your texts, your computers, folks, for this moment will not come again. Use it as an opportunity to look your kid in the eye, listen to their voice right now. What you are doing in your busy, busy life is so less important than responding or being with your child.

Mr. Rogers knew that.So should you.

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