“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”: What Can Fred Rogers Teach Us For 2020?

Dec 28th, 2019 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

David Pinkerton [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

In late November 2019, my wife and I saw the movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”  Arguably one of the best movies of 2019, it stars Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, the host of the popular PBS program Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood, which aired from 1968 through 2001.  Our children, especially our son Jonathan, were mesmerized by Mr. Rogers, as they watched him every afternoon after their daily nap.  “Would you be mine, could you be mine, please would you be my neighbor?” was the threefold question repeated for nearly 900 episodes of Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood. It was the recurring song Fred Rogers sang as he entered the front door, removed his jacket, replaced it with a zippered cardigan, and made his way down the stairs of his television set home to swap out his dress shoes for canvas sneakers.


Only now do we recognize the profound impact Mr. Rogers had on our children.  Today, there is no one like Fred Rogers.  He and his wife, Joanne, were married for over 50 years, and lived most of their married life in Pittsburgh, where he taped his PBS program at WQED.  Rogers was a perfectionist, disciplined and focused, yet incredibly gracious and compassionate in his dealings with people.  He was an ordained Presbyterian minister, known for his focused praying and reaching out to hurting people.  He had an incredibly long prayer list of people he prayed for daily, while kneeling at his bed.  But, his greatest passion was for children and, because of his faith, he desired to minister to children, whom he regarded as humans with dignity, value, worth and in need of attention and commitment from adults, especially their parents.


What did Fred Rogers seek to teach 20th century Americans?  Erica Komisar, a psychoanalyst, who adamantly defends the proposition that mothers are immeasurably important to a child’s first three years of life, suggests several important lessons we can learn from Fred Rogers:

  1. Rogers believed that adults should lead children with love and understanding, not fear and punishment. Because children are emotionally sensitive and neurologically fragile, they need respect and tenderness.  He modeled that.
  2. By listening to and empathizing with children, they develop a deep sense that they are valuable. As a Christian, Rogers believed that all human beings are of worth and value.
  3. “Rogers believed that affection and eye contact were critical to children’s brain development.” For that reason he always spoke in a calm, gentle manner.
  4. Rogers believed that strength comes from expressing feelings, not repressing them.
  5. He showed parents how to play with their children. “Play is the language of childhood and is crucial for healthy social and emotional development.  He used puppets and make-believe to help children work through conflicts and resolve fears.”
  6. Rogers majored in music in college and was a talented musician, along with his wife. So, he used music to serenade and teach children about feelings and emotions.  All of the songs on his PBS program he wrote.
  7. Rogers taught children the value and worth of every human being. He introduced them to people of all races and ethnic backgrounds.  “His show featured  children who were handicapped physically and developmentally.  He made it his mission to encourage children to empathize and accept others—and themselves.  He believed that we are all neighbors, more alike than different.
  8. He sought to teach children how the world works. Children are always asking “why” and “how.”  He offered answers and further fostered curiosity.


Furthermore, Ryan J. Pemberton suggests that Fred Rogers echoed Jesus’ conversation with a lawyer in Luke 10, where he asks, and “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  “What is written in the law?” Jesus asks in reply.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind,” the lawyer replies, recalling Deuteronomy 6:5. “And your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).  “You have given the right answer,” Jesus says. “Do this, and you will live.”  “And who is my neighbor?” he asks (Luke 10:25–29, ESV).  “Jesus refuses to give the lawyer what he wants: a rule to follow. Nor does he offer a neat definition of neighbor to apply like a blueprint. Instead, Jesus tells a story that invites his listener to be a good neighbor—something that will continue acting on the imagination long after their conversation, and, in turn, shape his heart.”  What if Rogers was, over and over again, offering a model of what it looks like to be a good neighbor, loving our neighbor as ourselves?  What does this then involve?

  1. The Liturgy of Love. Fred Rogers was a pioneer in recognizing television as a powerful vehicle of formation. It was this vision paired with his theological training that made for a truly unique approach. “He was ordained in the ministry of television,” reflected Nicholas Ma, the director of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? As Rogers later acknowledged himself, “What we see and hear on the screen becomes who we are.” Out of a deep love and concern for children, Rogers filled his television show with intentionally crafted symbols, movements, and phrases—all designed to shape his audience into a particular way of being.
  2. The Liturgy of Slowing Down. “At the start of each episode, the camera passes through a model neighborhood before focusing on a single house. As it enters the home, the camera pans past a blinking yellow stoplight—a symbolic invitation to slow down. Another repeated practice involves Rogers feeding his fish on-air. His actions challenge the part of us who see his actions as a needless exercise in patience, unfit for television. Instead, by observing him taking care of his pets, he reminds us that caring for God’s creatures takes time—and it is worth it.  Out of a deep love and concern for children, Rogers filled his television show with intentionally crafted symbols, movements, and phrases—all designed to shape his audience into a particular way of being.  Fear of neighbor is another possible explanation these two religious leaders pass by the beaten man in Luke 10 without helping. . . Fear of the other is rampant during our own day as much as it was when Rogers repeatedly addressed it on air.   In the first week of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the ruler of the Land of Make-Believe, King Friday XIII, orders guards to stand watch against foreigners and the corresponding change they will bring, demanding a wall be built to ensure safety. Characters fly balloons over the wall in response, carrying invitations to live counter to the dictates of fear, lives characterized by peace, friendship, and love. The invitation is a success, and King Friday reverses his commands for a wall, giving the opportunity for enemies to become neighbors, and neighbors to become friends (a clear echo of the Good Samaritan story). This early scene captures a key objective Rogers had for his show: re-shaping anger or fear of neighbor into love and compassionate care.”
  3. The Liturgy of Relationship. “Though I didn’t realize it growing up watching the show, the intro song to each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood invited me to see myself as a neighbor in relationship with other neighbors. In the beginning of each episode, Mister Rogers wasn’t just swapping out his clothes—he was becoming vulnerable to his audience. He made himself intimate, approachable, and available.  Rogers invited his viewers to be open to our own neighbors by modeling it himself. His television set home was always open to neighbors. ‘I’d like for you to know my television neighbor,’ he often told viewers, introducing another member of his community. In the May 9, 1969 episode, one year after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Rogers cooled his bare feet in a plastic pool on a hot day when his local police officer stopped by. At Rogers’ invitation, Officer Clemmons, a black man, joined him in the foot bath. The invitation offered an important counter-formation in viewers’ minds in a time when African Americans were violently removed from ‘white’ swimming pools. Rogers realized that the minds and hearts of our nation’s children needed a different story and he offered them one.”
  4. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? “Fred Rogers’s return to the mainstream comes at a time when the political, ecclesial, and ethnic schisms in our lives have left us looking for help in navigating divisive days. The solution must be complex enough to address the malformation of our hearts and minds: we no longer know who our neighbor is, because we’ve forgotten what it means to be a neighbor. Jesus’ tale of the Good Samaritan who found his neighbor beaten and bloodied beside the road to Jerusalem is not a story to be heard once and understood. It is intended to be told and re-told, acting on our imagination so that this story might be lived out, so that we might live (Luke 10:28).  But living into this story requires a deep counter-formation. And that counter-formation requires a creative, subversive approach. We are in need of transformation that digs deeper through repeated stories, language, and practices that bend the walls of our minds and hearts toward shalom.”

I thank the Lord for Fred Rogers and the impact he had on our children.  I am glad American culture in this Postmodern, Post-Christian era is being re-introduced to the quiet revolutionary, Fred Rogers.  He taught what it means to be a good neighbor.  He taught us how to be kind, compassionate and gracious.  In a time of mean-spirited, ruthless leaders, Rogers has much to teach us.  May God use the message and methods of Fred Rogers to teach us what it means to be a good neighbor.


See Ryan J. Pemberton, “The Quiet Liturgy of Fred Rogers,” Today in Christian History (22 November 2019) and Erica Komisar in the Wall Street Journal (23-24 November 2019).

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