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Thursday, September 18, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 3/1/2003

Respect was key in being his neighbor

Only twice in my lifetime has a celebrity's death provoked personal grief.

The first time was in 1996, when Ella Fitzgerald left us.

The second time is now, when Fred Rogers has died.

Now, I'll grant you that more than once I have used this space to write some exceedingly not-nice things about television.

I have especially used this space to rail against the tragic fact that too many kids watch too much television, and that too much of the television aimed at kids is pure garbage.

But Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood gave children the kind of TV show they deserved.

No, strike that.

Let me rephrase that, because Fred Rogers' relationship with his audience was about something much more profound than mere television viewership.

In fact, Mr. Rogers treated children the way all adults should treat children.

He was calm and reassuring.

He gave children credit for being able to follow a single thought for more than 10 seconds, unlike most other, more frenetic kids' shows.

He knew that making rituals and consistency a part of his program met a very real childhood need.

He understood that engaging children's imagination didn't require bells and whistles.

He never skittered away from the kinds of topics - war, death, divorce, anger, jealousy - that can leave kids overwhelmed, uncertain, and scared.

He addressed their fears by taking great pains to speak to children at their own level.

He took even greater pains to never, ever, ever talk down to them.

In short, Fred Rogers respected children.

After all, he often told them, “there's only one you,” and he liked them all “just the way you are.”

Respect for children is the one commodity in dangerously short supply on television.

You'd be surprised how seldom some kids hear that message from anyone on TV.

You'd also be sadly surprised, perhaps, at how seldom some kids get that message from anyone in their lives.

Lurching as I am toward 50, I'm too old to have been one of the millions upon millions of children who watched him since his program's nationwide debut in 1968.

No, I came to know Mr. Rogers while sitting beside my now-adolescent daughter, those many years ago when she was young enough to regard his Neighborhood of Make Believe as a very real place, indeed.

Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood was one of the few TV programs her father and I allowed our daughter to watch.

And, to tell you the truth, there came a time when I realized how much I looked forward to stopping the events of the day long enough to sit quietly alongside my child, close enough to feel her breathe, and listen to that familiar, soothing voice.

It's been years since I watched an episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, and it's been years since Mr. Rogers recorded one.

So I guess it's not really his show I'll miss.

It's him.



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