I’m back from vacation!  Thanks for checking back here, everyone.  Between me being tired out from traveling and my computer experiencing connection difficulties, I’ve been kept away from posting a bit longer than I had expected to be.

I figured I’d talk about a children’s show that was a blessing to me when I was very young.  I don’t know if this specifically relates to Asperger’s; I think it probably did help me with some of the anxiety that comes along with AS– but it did so in a way that I imagine must have been helpful for a lot of children, whatever their situation.  That show was Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which I used to watch on PBS.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the program, it was created by educator, puppeteer, songwriter, and ordained minister Fred Rogers and ran from 1968 to 2001 in the United States.  It had a very simple format; in every episode, Rogers would arrive at his television house singing the song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” as he put on his sneakers and sweater.  He would speak gently to his TV audience, as if they were there in the room with him.

During the episode, he might have a conversation with one of his friends from the show’s world (like his mailman, Mr. McFeely) or visit an interesting real-life location like a museum, hospital, or fire station in a taped segment.  He would also usually work on some sort of craft project in the kitchen.

Each episode included a visit to the “Land of Make Believe,” with characters that included both live actors and puppets (many of them voiced by Rogers).  Usually, the make-believe story related in some way to the subject the episode focused on (for example, music or what to do when you feel angry).

At the end of the episode, Mr. Rogers would tell his audience “I love you just the way you are” and sing a song called “It’s Such a Good Feeling” as he put on his jacket and shoes and left until the next day.

One of the coolest things about being a 3-to-4-year-old in Pittsburgh was that Fred Rogers himself was from that city, and a lot of the places that he would visit on his show were in Pittsburgh or close by.  In one episode, he went to a planetarium; in another, he went to a dinosaur museum.  My parents took me to the same planetarium and museum and I got to see the exact same things and places that Mr. Rogers had pointed out– with my own eyes!  That’s pretty high up on the coolness scale for the age that I was then.  🙂

As I think about my memories of watching Mr. Rogers, I realize that it was different from a lot of other children’s TV shows in a lot of good ways.  One thing I am particularly thankful for is how clearly it helped me to learn the distinction between what is real and what is imaginary.

I found a clip online from an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood made in 1979.  (I remember seeing this episode, so I’m sure it must have been rerun during the 1980s.)  This clip is from a series of episodes about superheroes that was made because of a number of incidents of children hurting themselves because they thought wearing a cape would allow them to fly like Superman or some other hero.

This clip includes the very end of a segment of Mr. Rogers visiting the set of the TV show The Incredible Hulk and speaking with actor Lou Ferrigno and director Bill Bixby about how they make the show.  Another episode from the series includes a video showing the long makeup process used to make Ferrigno look like the Hulk and has Rogers trying on the prosthetics that give the Hulk his huge nose and forehead.  (a pretty funny sight!)

There are a lot of things that I could observe about Fred Rogers’ teaching style in this clip, but here are just a few observations.

  • He remains consistent in how he speaks to the children in his TV audience whether he’s on the set of his show or out in public.  It’s kind of funny how the people he meets often relate awkwardly to the idea that they should treat the camera as a person (like how Bixby stresses “make-believe” at the end of the segment), but Rogers didn’t fall into that.
  • Everything Mr. Rogers says and does is intended for children.  You don’t find the little in-jokes and pop culture references for adults that are scattered throughout most children’s movies and TV (and that’s not meant as a slam on today’s media; such things were common when I was a child as well).
  • When I was searching the Internet for clips of Mr. Rogers, I sometimes found myself either cringing at the show’s sweetness or chuckling at things that could be taken out of context– and I would expect that most adults would have those reactions.  The wonderful thing about the show is that Rogers never seemed self-conscious or worried about what others would think.  He was able to address the real concerns that children have in a gentle, reassuring way.
  • It’s neat how he points out that a child’s imaginary creation is just as valid as a famous character like Superman or Wonder Woman.
  • My favorite part of this clip is the ending.  This episode was all about how television can make something look real without it being real.  This could present Rogers with a dilemma, because his own show uses a set that is not real:  his “house” is missing a wall so that the camera can follow him, and it uses a model to represent his “neighborhood.”  So what does Rogers do?  He walks off the set and shows the model to his audience!  I like how he says “It’s such a good feeling to be truthful.”  How many TV shows worry about whether using a set is “truthful”?

I really enjoyed learning about how Mr. Rogers’ show was made.  I remember other episodes in which he walked off set to introduce the audience to the piano player who provided the music or demonstrated how the puppet shows in the Land of Make-Believe worked.  This didn’t ruin the show for me as a child; it made me enjoy it more.

I’m thankful to Mr. Rogers for helping me to understand from an early age that TV and movies can be wonderful uses of imagination, but they are different from reality.  The monsters on the screen will not hurt me.  Perhaps more importantly, the people I see (and perhaps want to be like) on TV are not real either– they are actors reading lines, and the actors themselves often have the same struggles and insecurities that I do.

Sometimes I wonder if children are missing out on something important now that Fred Rogers is gone.  As technology improves, we get better and better at making illusions convincing, and as we seek more entertainment, the lines between genres become blurred.  It’s possible to make clips like the one below about the President having to deal with an unexpected guest at his press conference:

(Edit: Oops; it looks like the clip of infomercial guru Billy Mays trying to sell a bunch of stuff to the President is gone. Someone replaced it with a less funny, more obscene version. Sigh. Such is the Internet. Glad I checked this immediately!)

I find that clip hilarious and harmless, but I wonder if everyone is able to distinguish reality from imagination in cases like this.  Another comedy show created a clip using an interview with Michelle Obama in which she talked about how her daughters still needed to make their beds even though they lived in the White House, and they put lookalikes of the two Obama girls in the background throwing a temper tantrum.  It was silly, but at the same time, I hoped the girls didn’t see it.  I’d be pretty upset if I was that age and someone on TV was pretending to be me.

Elsewhere, we have CNN newscasters doing reports in movies about events like dinosaur attacks and Earth-destroying comets.  News broadcasts themselves are produced to be more flashy and impressive looking all the time.  And a lot of people my age today get their news primarily from comedy shows.

I think it’s important to teach children the difference between real and make-believe, and to make sure we don’t lose sight of it ourselves.

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