Mr. Rogers vs. the Superheroes

One of the few things that could raise anger — real, intense anger — in Mister Rogers was the willful misleading of children. Superheroes, he thought, were the worst culprits.

Maxwell King | An excerpt adapted from The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers | Abrams | September 2018 | 12 minutes (3,033 words)

It all came together in Hawaii, of all places.

In the late 1970s, David Newell and Fred Rogers were traveling together to Honolulu, where Fred was scheduled to make a speech. David Newell handled public relations for Fred Rogers and his production company, Family Communications, Inc. (FCI), as well as playing Mr. McFeely, the “speedy delivery” mailman character on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Rogers hated traveling by himself — in fact, he hated traveling at all, just as he hated giving speeches. But he was often called on to speak at colleges and universities, as well as to early childhood education groups and broadcasting organizations, and most often it was Newell who traveled with him.

In a taxi to the speaking engagement, Rogers was lost in thought about his upcoming speech. Newell recalls: “In the newspaper, I came across this little blurb that a child had jumped off a roof with a towel — the Superman thing.”

Newell interrupted Rogers’s reverie to tell him the shocking news that a little boy who’d watched Superman on television had decided he would try to fly, and was terribly injured falling from a rooftop. One of the few things that could raise anger — real, intense anger — in Mister Rogers was willfully misleading innocent, impressionable children. To him, it was immoral and completely unacceptable.

When Fred Rogers and David Newell learned about the child who hurt himself trying to be a superhero, they came up with an idea: a special program to help kids grasp just what a fictional superhero is.

His feelings extended to programming of any kind, including advertising and entertainment watched by very young children. In a speech given at an academic conference at Yale University in 1972, Fred Rogers said, “The impact of television must be considered in the light of the possibility that children are exposed to experiences which may be far beyond what their egos can deal with effectively. Those of us who produce television must assume the responsibility for providing images of trustworthy available adults who will modulate these experiences and attempt to keep them within manageable limits.” Which is exactly what Rogers himself had tried to do with the production of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

In a now-famous Rogers dictum, delivered in speeches and in his books, he advises adults: “Please, think of the children first. If you ever have anything to do with their entertainment, their food, their toys, their custody, their day care, their health, their education — please listen to the children, learn about them, learn from them.” When Fred Rogers and David Newell learned about the child who hurt himself trying to be a superhero, they came up with an idea: a special program to help kids grasp just what a fictional superhero is. In the cab, they talked about whether one special program would be enough, or would they need a whole week on the topic? They started to plan a week of programs to explain superheroes to children, to help them separate fact from fantasy, just as Rogers had on the Neighborhood in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was about to be reborn in a second phase. After a hiatus of almost five years, it came back stronger and more sophisticated than ever. It was the most ambitious concept Fred Rogers had yet come up with, one that would tackle the toughest questions young children might encounter. He wanted to risk talking about divorce, separation from parents, sickness, violence, and some of the other fears that could be most daunting for very young children. It would take exceptionally skilled scriptwriting to sustain a story over a full week, and to weave in and out of explication through which Mister Rogers would try to address the concerns of his young viewers.

By the time he got back from Hawaii, Fred Rogers had concluded that the sort of programming he was planning could best be handled in the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood format: using the segments from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe to advance a narrative employing fantasy storytelling to raise important issues, and using the segments that focused on Fred’s “real television neighborhood” to bring in experts and guests to explore the meaning of these issues.

He and Margaret McFarland began deliberations on some of the most challenging topics imaginable for an audience of children, including theme weeks on superheroes, divorce, discipline, mistakes, anger, competition, and absent parents who are at work all week. Fred and his staff lined up support from PBS and the Sears-Roebuck Foundation for the theme-week concept, and production got underway in 1979, starting with a week on superheroes that highlighted the professional bodybuilder and actor Lou Ferrigno, who played the Incredible Hulk on the television show of the same name. The week, which aired in February 1980, starts with Rogers using wooden blocks to demonstrate that, though each person may seem the same as others, everyone is distinctive and different in important ways.

In the Neighborhood of Make-Believe portion of the first show, the puppet Prince Tuesday shows Lady Aberlin a trick; then, convinced by his own skill with the trick, Prince Tuesday begins to think he can do almost anything: that he has something like superpowers.

When the show returns to Mister Rogers’s “real neighborhood,” Fred tells the viewers that pretending can be a problem when a child comes to believe what he is pretending. The show ends with Mister Rogers getting a phone call from Bill Bixby, the actor who plays Dr. David Banner on The Incredible Hulk. Bixby and Rogers promise the viewers that they’ll go on the set of the Hulk later that week to see how the show is made. A major goal of Rogers was to demystify the creation of a superhero by taking his viewers behind the scenes to see the details by which the fantasy is created.

Through the course of the week, Rogers used the Neighborhood of Make-Believe to explore the fantasies of children: the puppet Ana Platypus thinks she can fly, and has to be caught by Lady Aberlin; Prince Tuesday alternates between delusions of superpower and fears. Rogers uses the “real neighborhood” to patiently explain reality. As scriptwriter, he took great pains to ensure that his young viewers could distinguish between the reality and fantasy sections.

When Mister Rogers and Mr. McFeely go to the set of The Incredible Hulk, they get to interview Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno about their roles “pretending” to be characters, and about their real lives. Rogers and McFeely want to illustrate how different these actors are from the characters they pretend to be. Mister Rogers manages quietly and gently to show viewers the behind-the-scenes creation of the Hulk, based on the comic-book story by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby about a widowed physician and scientist, Dr. Banner, who turns into the Hulk when he gets angry.

During the whole week, Mister Rogers manages to slow the world down and reduce some of the most confusing and troubling apprehensions of children to calm, thoughtful, and simple explication. The Hulk show was a more in-depth treatment of a topic explored in an earlier 1975 Neighborhood episode featuring Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz. As she donned the witch’s costume, and then took it off to go back to street clothes, children could see that it was all part of a show — not something scary or real.

A major goal of Rogers was to demystify the creation of a superhero by taking his viewers behind the scenes.

Academics who’ve studied Rogers’s work often marvel at how young children calm down, pay attention, and learn so much from this television production — and at how they remain calm and centered for some time after watching the Neighborhood. Rogers himself put great care into the pacing of the program to help children slow down and steady themselves.

One of Rogers’s film editors, Pasquale Buba (who went on from the Neighborhood to Hollywood to edit dozens of feature films), explains that Rogers deliberately lengthened scenes as the theme week progressed, so that the children would get used to an environment that extended their attention spans as they became more and more familiar with the story line.

Many of the academics who studied early learning became advocates for the Neighborhood’s thoughtful, gentle approach.

Some of the advocates for giving children creative freedom — like Vivian Gussin Paley, author of A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play — decried an education format that pushed children toward rote learning. Story-based learning gives kids the freedom to explore fantasy and can help advance social and emotional development: “With the growth of nursery schools and childcare centers came the notion that there was too much play,” said Paley.

“Furthermore, these early years were designated as the optimum time to introduce the shapes and sounds of letters rather than the shapes and sounds of characters in a story. . . . Further confusing our logic and common sense, children labeled ‘at risk,’ who often had less opportunity for play and talk at home, were allowed less time for these activities in school as well.”

The debate was not just about education and pacing. It was about childhood itself. Fred Rogers was viewed as the champion of slow pacing and a free-flowing approach allowing young children to play, to fantasize, to make up stories, and to take lots of time to process learning: the most likely way to enable them to develop appropriately. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was viewed as the great exemplar of this relaxed approach. Sesame Street came to be viewed — sometimes to an unfair extent — as an example of a frenetic, intense, information-age approach that put cognitive learning first, cranked up the pressure, and foreshortened childhood in favor of learning letters and numbers. The pacing was set to be as fast as the times, with some emulation of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and the television serial Batman.


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As the years went by, Sesame Street slowed down and tried a more balanced approach to learning, but the focus on intense pressure to accomplish rote learning at younger and younger ages still colored the common perception of the show. Dorothy Singer of Yale University speculated that a kind of competition had grown up between the slow-paced Neighborhood and other children’s programming: “I think he [Rogers] has a lot of competition with these jazzed-up shows because I think that’s what our world is like today . . . many of them that try to be slow-paced, producers won’t even look at. They want something that’s very quick, fun, excitement, a lot of music, and a lot of zip. . . . And I think there is going to be a turnaround. I’m seeing a backlash right now of parents demanding more playtime, parents demanding more recess.

“Look what happened to Sesame Street. . . . They are a very fast-paced program. But . . . because of Elmo, their largest audience . . . is two, two and a half, and three instead of fours and fives. The Elmo segment is now a longer segment, and slower-paced. And they know that young children can’t process as quickly as older children. So, we’re seeing some changes.”

According to Dr. Singer, “We have spoken to the Sesame Street people again and again. I’ve timed that program so many times where I can find twenty-three different elements in one hour, and none of them really lasts more than a minute, minute and a half, or three minutes. They’ve slowed that down a little bit, while with Fred Rogers there’s one theme that goes through his whole program in thirty minutes.

“He has various ways of approaching that theme, but it’s one theme, while Sesame Street could have many, many themes going on. That’s very hard for a child to remember. . . . They [Sesame] have also introduced more imaginative elements. They’ve also tried to do more pro-social behavior. Those are influences [from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood]. I’m pretty sure that if you asked them, they might say no, but I think they came from Fred.”

In truth, the evolution of Sesame Street and the Children’s Television Workshop in New York was every bit as high-minded, idealistic, and ambitious as the birth of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Joan Ganz Cooney worked with Lloyd Morrisett of the Carnegie Corporation to try to find a way to use television to provide an educational boost to young children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. And she brought in Dr. Gerald S. Lesser, a psychologist from the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to help shape programming approaches with quick-witted humor and the techniques of advertising to capture the attention of young children and provide instruction on the alphabet, numbers, and reading, to help them get ready for their formal schooling. It was a brilliant idea, and it resulted in programming that has run longer and probably done more good, in telecasts all over the world, than anything else in television.

Academics who’ve studied Rogers’s work often marvel at how young children calm down, pay attention, and learn so much from this television production — and at how they remain calm and centered for some time after watching the Neighborhood.

Fred Rogers himself was always very careful not to criticize Sesame Street in any public way. Privately, though, he shared with some staff members his concern that the hip pacing of the show could make it harder, rather than easier, for young children to learn. And Rogers, who had always believed it was more important to help young children deal with social and emotional development than it was to just cram facts into their heads, worried that Sesame’s unrelenting emphasis on cognitive learning left it too thin on the social and emotional.

Early in the evolution of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Rogers offered this definitive observation to a meeting of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry: “It’s easy to convince people that children need to learn the alphabet and numbers. . . . How do we help people to realize that what matters even more than the superimposition of adult symbols is how a person’s inner life finally puts together the alphabet and numbers of his outer life? What really matters is whether he uses the alphabet for the declaration of war or the description of a sunrise — his numbers for the final count at Buchenwald or the specifics of a brand-new bridge.”

Language, and the best way to develop language skills in young children, became a centerpiece of this debate about early childhood education. In a classic academic study, two researchers from the University of Kansas, Drs. Todd Risley and Betty Hart, spent years following the lives of a very large number of families to gauge the difference and importance of developing language skills in very young children. They discovered that parents in economically disadvantaged households had much less informal discourse with their very young children than did middle-class families.

The conversations in poor families tended to be more perfunctory — “don’t do that, come here, put on your coat” — while in middle-class families they were richer, more discursive, and exploratory, employing a dramatically larger number of words. The result: The poor children in the study, published in 1995, had little more than a quarter of the vocabulary of the middle-class kids by the time they got to public school, and they arrived at kindergarten far behind and far less ready to learn.

Most significantly, many of these kids never caught up: It was game over by kindergarten, just because they hadn’t evolved rich and modulated language skills.

Fred Rogers understood this. He had learned it from his studies with Dr. McFarland and Dr. Benjamin Spock and Eric Erikson and others at the University of Pittsburgh. He had learned it from his own experience teaching children and creating programming for them. He had learned it as a little boy, lonely and unsure of himself, but with a mother and father and grandparents who gave him unconditional love and talked to him. Most importantly, Rogers had been given the freedom to play, to develop his own creative fantasies. He had been given the gift of language by his mother. He learned that creativity is far more important than rote learning.

These debates about education — emotional and social learning versus hard-edged cognitive development, slow- or fast-paced, feelings or facts — are as old as the art of teaching itself. And there have been plenty of critics of Rogers’s approach as naive, hopelessly idealistic, and not geared to the vicissitudes of adult life. As early as the late 1960s, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was sometimes chided for being too much about feelings. Rogers’s critics often derided him for being too soft and undemanding, and not emphasizing the sort of painful cognitive rigor needed for success in the real world.

Most researchers credit Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood together with raising the absolute standard for all children’s programming in the second half of the twentieth century. Moreover, Rogers and Cooney joined together to try to deflect any notion of competitive bad blood between the two:

“There were two schools of thought in preschool education,” said Cooney in an interview. “One school thought you did not teach cognitive skills, you only worked on the affective side — the ‘whole child,’ as it was called. Fred and I had no such problems at all, and we just refused — I don’t think we ever talked about it, but maybe we did on the phone. We refused to be pitted against each other by people like the Singers, who were always attacking us for being cognitive. Fred and I just stood firm and said, ‘We are two sides of the same coin.’ . . . We were great admirers of each other. You know, Fred was unique. There had never been a Fred Rogers, and there wasn’t going to be another Fred Rogers.” Rogers himself couldn’t have cared less about engaging the debate. He wasn’t much interested in academic wrangles, and throughout his life he was more often repelled, rather than attracted, by the strife of ideological battle. He believed in his approach, he believed in his teachers — McFarland, Spock, Erikson, Brazelton — and he was determined to pursue his vision of transformative children’s television based on slow pacing, the elegance of simple explanations of the world’s complexity, and his distinctive focus on human kindness. Rogers’s supporters argue that the proof is in the pudding: Children raised on the ethic of the Neighborhood, though less likely to make millions on an innovative hedge-fund scheme on Wall Street, are more likely to grow up with the kind of social and emotional understanding that can lead to a happily balanced life.

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Maxwell King is the CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation. After a career in journalism, including eight years as editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, King served as president of the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Endowments for nearly a decade.

Editor: Dana Snitzky