I wrote a blog recently about Fred Rogers and his show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” I focused on how he helped generations of parents be better, more empathetic and connected with their children. Since then, I’ve read many articles about Mr. Rogers because of the newly released documentary about Fred Rogers and the movie starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. Both movies have had good audiences and great reviews.
On November 27, 2019,, I saw an article in the Washington Post titled, “What Happened When I Showed Vintage Mr. Rogers To My 21st Century Kids.” Then on December 2, I read another article, also in the Washington Post, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sesame Street and it’s receipt of the Kennedy Center Honors – the first TV show to ever receive this award.
These two articles made me think about how today’s kids relate to these two classic kids shows from a kinder, simpler time. Fred Rogers retired from his show in 2001 so he never had to deal with the iPhone, social media and video game obsessed kids of today. But Sesame Street is still going strong, which is a tribute to the evergreen concept of the show.
Both shows are firmly rooted in an understanding of early childhood development, cognitive psychology, and curriculum design. Both shows understand how children think and react at a young age, so they know how to speak to the children’s concerns, interests, and fears, on their own level. Both shows are rooted in kindness and acceptance. Their worlds are inhabited by empathetic, caring characters but these characters have to learn how to deal with others who aren’t always nice.
Kids are told in these shows that they have the ability to be good people but they also have the strength and confidence to handle whatever happens in their lives. These lessons are eternal, so they still appeal even to the social media immersed kids of today.
The aforementioned Mr. Rogers article documents the accidental exposure of the writer’s kids to old Mr. Rogers Shows. The writer, Mary Pflum Peterson, was tasked to produce a national TV segment on Mr. Rogers in connection with the release of the Fred Rogers documentary. She wanted to binge-watch hundreds of old shows and get representative clips of some of the classic Mr. Rogers moments.
Mary has four young children but assumed that the show was a part of a bygone era that would not resonate, or even hold the attention of today’s short attention span kids. Her children had previously dissed vintage music, like Madonna and Springsteen as boring and called their parents’ favorite childhood movies like ‘ET’ and ‘Karate Kid’, too slow. So she didn’t even ask her kids to watch Mr. Rogers with her.
Then something shocking happened. The kids drifted into the room where Mary was watching ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’. And they became immediately entranced. “Who is that nice man?” they wanted to know.
Then, “Can we watch with you?”
To their mother’s surprise, after each episode, they asked to watch another. The two slightly older kids also started to watch episode after episode – for days on end. The kids applied modern technology to their newfound passion. They used their iPads and their mom’s laptop to pull up old Mr. Rogers shows and then created a playlist, ranking their favorite episodes.
Mary asked her children what appealed to them about the show and discovered that it’s all about the man, Fred Rogers. “He likes kids, Mommy,” said one. “And he’s not too loud. When we watch him, we don’t have to worry about anything.”
Another child described Mr. Rogers as “…the one who makes people feel better.”
So it boils down to kindness, calmness, and sincerity. Even in a fast-moving world that is often noisy and chaotic, kids are drawn to and reassured by what is real and what is kind.
These same qualities have kept Sesame Street in business for 50 years. Its goal is still to make kids grow up stronger, smarter, kinder and more accepting. Sesame Street fosters the same thing as Mr. Rogers – a sense of belonging for everyone based on acceptance and inclusion for everyone. Acceptance of people who are different has continued to be a major theme on Sesame Street through the years.
To adapt to the modern era, Sesame Street has become brighter and a bit faster and ‘zippier’. The set is cleaner and spiffier and there’s a recycling bin next to Oscar the Grouch’s trashcan. There’s also a community garden and Hooper’s store serves birdseed smoothies. The songs have also taken on a more modern tone, like a catchy R&B riff on self-assurance.
Most importantly, the show is still helping kids cope honestly with difficult issues, like the incarceration of a parent, the deployment of a family member and the aftermaths of hurricanes and other natural disasters. In 2017 they introduced a character, Julia, who has autism so as to address the increasing number of kids being diagnosed on the spectrum and to demystify the condition.
Kids still want to touch and talk to the Muppet puppets wherever they go for public appearances. The kids ask them questions and listen intently to the answers. They still feel comforted by this kind and accepting characters who help make the world a little less confusing and scary.
Just like Mr. Rogers, who still also appeals to young children everywhere. So I guess young kids haven’t changed that much over the past 50 years.