Do . . . you . . . know . . . why . . . Mr. . . . Rogers . . . of . . . Mr. . . . Rogers' . . . Neighbor . . . hood . . . TV . . . show . . . talks . . . so . . . very . . . slowly . . . and . . . very . . . clearly . . . and . . . uses . . . little . . . tiny . . . words?
During my college years, I had privilege of working on " Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" show for WQED Public TV in Pittsburgh. As an intern, I assisted with props and sets. One day while on a break from shooting, I asked Fred Rogers why he talked in such a leisurely, piecemeal way. What he shared with me, as well as what I observed being with him, gave me a fresh appreciation of commitment, compassion and integrity.
"Children understand us when we talk plainly and honestly to them," explained Mr. Rogers. "I talk very simply to children because I want to communicate with them as young as possible. Even before children understand intellectual definition of words, they absorb meaning from vibration of each spoken word, energy of intention of communication, and feelings of people speaking."
This champion of children has been speaking to hearts and spirits of youngsters since beginning of commercial broadcast communication. Before television was born, Mr. Rogers was on first radio station in world, KDKA in Pittsburgh, with "The Children's Hour." His program later developed into "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" on public television. Now his slow-talking children's show is on hundreds of television stations in United States and in scores of other countries.
Fred Rogers relates to children naturally and intimately. He speaks from his heart directly into their souls. And they intensely love him in return. The depth to which Mr. Rogers touches children reveals itself when kids from around country come to visit television studio. Often I watched frightened children timidly step into huge studio, closely hugging their parents, holding onto a leg or an arm. For a child, a TV studio is an intimidating room full of wires, cables, monitors, bright lights and scores of big people running around yelling orders at each other. Peering through this scary mass of adults, cameras and props, kids would catch a glimpse of Mr. Rogers on far side of set. Overwhelmed with raw enthusiasm, they'd tear free from their parents, climb over cables, weave past all equipment and jump joyously into Fred' s outstretched arms.
Somehow, Mr. Rogers always knew when a child was coming and would drop whatever he was doing to be ready to embrace them. Many times I saw kids leap several feet before reaching him, confident their loving hero would catch them once they reached his waist or chest. And Fred would always snag them-gently, reverently. Those children held onto him so tightly. Crying with delight, kids would tell him repeatedly how much they loved him. Touching, holding and hugging this gentle, caring person- who had affected them so poignantly over airwaves-was thrill of their lives.
Often, after a short while, some parents became visibly jealous of strong, open affection between their kids and show's genial host. Usually, Mr. Rogers perceived emotions emanating from Mom and Dad, and graciously returned child to envious parents. However, when Fred missed his cue, parents would physically rip their child away from his embrace, making up some excuse about having to leave.
"Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" has a very distinct purpose in addition to entertainment. In every episode of show, Fred weaves a consistent connection of cooperation, caring, fairness, generosity, honesty, mutuality, trust, openness, spontaneity, courage and harmony between himself and show's characters. These qualities are spiritual principles by which Fred Rogers lives and expresses himself consistently in word, feeling and action on his program and in his private life. He realizes parents may be lacking in some values or may not be available enough to instill these qualities in their children. Fred uses his interactions with show's puppet and human characters to introduce and demonstrate these values to kids as early in their lives as possible. Then, when children are older and their world expands beyond their home to adults and other kids, they have a solid spiritual and social foundation to draw upon.
Adroitly, Mr. Rogers never lectures his audience, but rather relies on his regular cast of puppet people and animals to present and implant caring concepts through playful adventures. When Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968, Mr. Rogers noticed most television stations were showing people grieving and wearing solemn dark clothes. In addition, radio outlets were broadcasting very doleful music befitting a nation in mourning. As an adult, he understood this somberness is primary way our culture deals with death. However, he was concerned about effect this perspective on death was having on children. Fred feared that extreme national outpouring of grief and despair was sending a very one-sided, negative message to kids concerning death-one of overwhelming sadness, fear, abandonment and confusion. In order to present an alternative to nation's morose and bleak cultural perception of mortality, Mr. Rogers engaged magic of his puppets.
What a great time puppets were having playing with balloons! The puppets bounced and played catch with balloons until balloons became their friends. The puppets became such intimate friends with balloons, they gave them personal names. Then, in frolic and spontaneity of play, one by one balloons were punctured. Some balloons deflated quickly. Others lost their air more slowly. Because puppets were losing some of their balloon friends, they were sad. All they had left of their friends were limp, lifeless pieces of rubber. Afraid and confused, puppets went to Wise Owl and asked him what was happening to their balloon buddies.