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Mister Rogers Goes to Washington. Cue Tears.

April 9, 2012

I don’t recall caring much for Mister Rogers when I was a kid. I watched it, sure, but it was milquetoast compared to the other things on TV that I really liked—GI Joe, He-Man, even Jem. Looking back, all I remember of Rogers is the changing of sweaters, the trains and the puppets—actually, I think Eddie Murphy’s impressions on Saturday Night Live come in clearer, and those aired when I was an infant.

But boy was I wrong. A new documentary on Rogers is coming out, titled Misters Rogers and Me. I haven’t seen it, and the only reason I know about is by half-listening to public radio. But during an exchange between guest and host (I guess I should give credit to Jesse Thorn and Bullseye) the show played an audio clip of Rogers’ testimony before Congress in 1969.

What? Mister Rogers before Congress? And yes, it goes exactly how you think it would go, and it is one of the most moving things I have seen and heard in my life.

Rogers is testifying in support of a $20 million grant to the new Public Broadcasting System—you know, PBS. He speaks plainly and simply about what children need from adults, on TV and in person. It starts with what he calls a “meaningful expression of care.”

Rogers reminds the committee of his perennial sign-off: “You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world just like you, and I like you just the way you are.”

My wife remembers feeling those words as though they were spoken directly to her. Yesterday, when she heard them again via YouTube, she was in tears.

And he speaks of the importance of acknowledging real emotion. “We deal with such things as the inner drama of childhood. We don’t need to have to bop somebody over the head to make drama on the screen. We deal with such things as getting a haircut. Or the feelings between brothers and sisters. And the kind of anger that arises in simple family situations. And we speak to it constructively.”

Without a lot of opposition from the panel—who could resist Mister Rogers’ level, sonorous delivery?—he concludes: “If we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service to mental health. I think it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger, much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire.” He talks about helping children learn that they can channel and control their own emotions. And then he drops these song lyrics from the show:

Know that there’s something deep inside that helps us become what we can. For a girl can be someday a lady, and a boy can be someday a man.

Old-fashioned, yes. But persuasive. “Looks like you just earned your twenty million dollars,” says the chair. We second the ovation that followed. Even if kids don’t watch Mister Rogers, parents can certainly learn a thing or two from the man.

Tagged with: Mental Health, Public Policy