Raised as an only child—the richest kid in the working-class town of Latrobe, Pennsylvania—Rogers started off miles away from the children who would end up watching his programs. He was nicknamed “Fat Freddy” and bullied in school, and significant health concerns made his mother overprotective—she had him chauffeured to and from public school in a fancy car. Rogers never let go of the wounds of childhood, especially the fears and anxieties. He was one of those rare figures who sees some essential truth before everyone else—in this case, the importance of cultivating social and emotional intelligence in young children.
Reading about his early childhood, one gets the sense that Rogers was a highly sensitive person—something I knew nothing about until my first child was born and I struggled to make sense of how terrifying the world was to her. Together, we learned a lot from watching episodes of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, a program made by Fred Rogers Productions, a foundation that carries on his legacy of educating children in social-emotional intelligence. A brightly colored cartoon tiger helped my daughter learn that other people sometimes feel frightened and angry and don’t know what to do. The show gave her a language for understanding her inner world and taught her steps for addressing her fears. (As one song advises, “When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.”)
Rogers cut through the trappings of a Victorian-inspired culture that preferred children remain quiet, or at least deal quickly with any unpleasant feelings. Sadly, as a parent, this remains my first impulse—to wave away fears, supposedly to encourage resilience. King’s biography shows that Rogers took his bearings from experts who changed the way we view child psychology—not only Benjamin Spock but also Erik Erickson and especially Margaret McFarland, known as a giant in the field. For 30 years Rogers sought McFarland’s counsel on his shows and scripts, and her famous phrase, “Whatever is mentionable is manageable,” shaped his focus on helping children articulate and process their feelings. He saw all his work as a service for mental health—for creating neighborhood expressions of care.
As always, he grounded this approach in his Christian faith: The book quotes Rogers saying, “I believe that Jesus gave us an eternal truth about the universality of feelings. Jesus was truthful about his feelings: Jesus wept, he got sad; Jesus got discouraged; he got scared; and he reveled in the things that pleased him. For Jesus, the greatest sin was hypocrisy. . . . Jesus had much greater hope for someone like [a tax collector or prostitute] than for someone who always pretended to be something he wasn’t.”
In the preface to a 2016 edition of Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water, author Sara Zarr wrote on the division between sacred and secular in Christian culture. Growing up in an evangelical family, she heard a great deal about what was “secular,” or bad, in popular culture. But she never heard anything Christian called “sacred.” Instead, Christian advertising and media routinely used “safe” or “clean” as an alternative. This, Zarr points out, is miles away from the real meaning of sacred—something holy, worthy of veneration.
Rogers treated children and their inner lives as sacred.
Read it all.