Fred Rogers was born on this day in 1928. I, like most American kids, grew up watching Mister Rogers on PBS (America's Public Broadcasting System). He was (rather is, even after his passing) a national treasure. I'm sure he profoundly affected some of the ways I approach early childhood education...the way I talk with my students now, the respect I have for their intelligence and depth of thought, the importance of creative play... I'm sure I learned a bit about empathy from Fred, and about understanding and communicating to kids that we are all special and important.
I felt like Mister Rogers understood that even very young children thought in sophisticated ways about some pretty deep ideas, but communicating with them about those ideas required some simplification in your communication style. The idea is not necessarily to always simplify what you communicate about, but to simplify how you communicate about it. He dealt with themes as complex as death, divorce, adoption, body awareness, anger (as well as many, many lighter topics)...yet always in a positive, empathetic way that reached children in a way most adults can't.
I felt like he understood that kids want to participate, not just be entertained, but you've got to allow them to. He spoke directly to the camera, encouraging a dialogue. His songs are welcoming and simple enough that kids can sing along, can make the songs their own, even when they are about complex issues. In arranging his songs simply, and in creating lyrics even toddlers could follow and sing, he was able to communicate about sophisticated and simple ideas alike. He communicated with children, he didn't perform for them.
The Grammy Award for Best Children's Musical Album this year went to the Mister Rogers tribute album. I had mixed feelings about that. I would have been thrilled if an album of Mister Rogers performing his songs had won, but this album was kind of an adult contemporary tribute to Mister Rogers, made for adults more than kids. The simplicity of his songs (the arrangment and the lyrics, not necessarily the topics) is what makes them so great and so timeless to me, so I felt like it was kind of missing the point to line up the best singers and producers to perform his music. I honestly felt the 4 other albums were much better children's albums, but I understand that it would have been hard for any adult to vote against Mister Rogers.
The Archive of American Television's 4 1/2 hour interview with Fred Rogers has recently been posted at Google video. Obviously, that's an awful lot of interview to sit down and watch in one sitting, but try watching one half hour segment a week. Or better yet, just let the interviews play as you do your work throughout the day or do some housecleaning...whatever. He talks about everything from his childhood to his thoughts on kids to insights on the TV and recording businesses. You are sure to be a better person for having listened.