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September 20, 2023

From “Show” to “Atmosphere” — Embracing Fred Rogers’ Legacy of Care

Andrew Spector, TPF Fellow 2023/24

On September 13 and 14, I had the opportunity to help host Ryan Rydzewski, co-author of When You Wonder, You’re Learning: Mister Rogers’ Enduring Lessons for Raising Creative, Curious, Caring Kids, for The Patterson Foundation’s book circle kickoff events. Over two days, Ryan spoke to hundreds of people across Charlotte, DeSoto, Manatee, and Sarasota counties. It was inspiring, to say the least.

I’m walking away from the kickoff events energized to host my book circle (you can still sign up to join or host one here!) and to continue discovering how Mister Rogers’ lessons can be embedded into my life.

My biggest takeaway from Ryan’s talks was that Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was not a “show.” It was Fred Rogers’ ministry and an “atmosphere.”

When Fred first watched television in 1951, he was concerned that it was being used for violent and comedic programming that dishonored human dignity. But he was also enthusiastic about television as an opportunity to spread positive messaging. He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1963 with the goal of using a television program to minister to American children and families. Although he never preached as we typically understand it on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the program was his way of evangelizing for a world with more love.

That’s why Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was very much not a show. Instead, as Fred explained in an interview with the New York Times, he was trying to create “an atmosphere that allows people to be comfortable enough to be who they are.” He believed that “the space between the television set and the viewer is holy ground.” When he spoke into the camera, he wanted the viewer to feel he was speaking directly to them.

He deeply understood something I remember Rabbi Howard Jaffe articulating during a sermon at my synagogue, Temple Isaiah, when I was a child. Rabbi Jaffe explained that the television is one of the only things we let into our homes that we can’t predict the values they will promote. Every stimulus we bring into our lives helps form our perception of what’s normal. Fred took very seriously the kind of “atmosphere” he would bring into people’s homes and children’s lives. Everything he did on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was intentional. For instance, every episode would begin with him changing from his jacket to a cardigan and his dress shoes to his sneakers. The purpose was to signal to viewers that it was time to be comfortable.

As I process how Mister Rogers’ lessons can show up in my life, I’m thinking of how I can better live Fred’s level of intentionality and care for others and be more discerning about the stimuli I allow into my home. How does he inspire you?

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