What happened when I showed vintage Mister Rogers to my 21st-century kids

    There’s a lot of talk about Mister Rogers these days. The release of the new feature film with Tom Hanks has prompted renewed discussion about Rogers’s kindness, his groundbreaking approach to children’s programming, about how all of us of a certain age associate him with a gentler, simpler time.

    But intertwined with all of the current chatter is the implied message that the original “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” series, while loved and appreciated by adults, is part of a bygone era and would never (ever!) fly with today’s iPad-loving, Fortnite-obsessed youth.

    I discovered just how wrong that assumption is.

    I’m the parent of four young children, and I was stunned to learn Mister Rogers’s style and message is (shockingly) appreciated by the children of today.

    I made the discovery 18 months ago, when I was assigned to produce a national television segment on Mister Rogers, in connection with the release of the then-new documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

    As part of the segment, I was charged with putting together a taped spot, highlighting some of the best moments of the beloved television series.

    To complete the task, I decided to lock myself in my bedroom one night and binge on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

    “Do you want to watch in the living room instead of the bedroom?” my husband asked. “Maybe show the kids?”

    I laughed at his suggestion.

    “Are you kidding?” I cried. “Have you forgotten what happened when we tried to show the kids ‘Footloose’?”

    Together we winced. When we tried showing the kids the original ‘Footloose’ film starring Kevin Bacon, the one that my husband and I adored in our youth, they mocked us.

    “This is terrible!” the kids groaned, as they watched Bacon and actress Lori Singer on screen. “Since when do 30-year-olds go to high school? Since when does anyone talk like that in high school?”

    Fifteen minutes into the film, they insisted we turn the film off, telling us they were scarred for life.

    The kids had similarly mocked other pop culture icons of our shared youth. They called the vintage Madonna I played for them “boring”and referred to Springsteen as “grandpa” music. They described cinematic classics like “E.T.” and the original “Karate Kid” as “too slow.”

    I had been crushed before by their lack of appreciation for the icons of our youth. I wasn’t going to let them do that to Mister Rogers.

    So into my bedroom I retreated to watch Mister Rogers alone. And that’s when something magical happened.

    Within a half-hour of my bingefest, our youngest two children, then ages 5 and 7, came to ask me to help them with some homework. They sat down on the bed beside me and peered at the television as I looked over their worksheets.

    In the episode I was watching, Mister Rogers had gone to a restaurant in Pittsburgh to show his young viewers how restaurants work.

    “Mommy,” asked my young daughter. “Who is that nice man?”

    “It’s Mommy’s friend, Fred,” I explained.

    “I like his voice,” said my 7-year-old son.

    “I like his clothes,” said my daughter.

    “Can we watch with you?” my son asked.

    I was skeptical but nodded. And so it began.

    I held my breath, waiting for them to tell me that the episode was too slow, to implore me to fast-forward to a moment when something more interesting happens.

    I waited for them to abandon ship and seek out an iPad or a snack in the other room, to seize control of the remote and turn the television to the Cartoon Network.

    But they didn’t do any of those things. And when that episode was over, they asked for another. And then, shockingly, another.

    Eventually, our older boys joined us.

    The kids had all kinds of questions about Mister Rogers — including the ones I used to ask as a kid. Why does he go to that house for his show, then leave? Does he have a second house somewhere? Does Mister Rogers’s house have a bedroom? Or at least a bathroom? (I was relieved to discover I wasn’t the only kid who wondered if Mister Rogers had a bathroom).

    As a family, we continued the Mister Rogers marathon the next day and then the day after that, even after my taped spot had been cut.

    My oldest two boys were intrigued by Trolley (was he remote control-operated?) and the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, which they described as “trippy.”

    My youngest two kids started pulling up old episodes on their iPad and my laptop, creating a playlist and ranking their favorites.

    They shushed other family members if they made noise when they watched.

    Most intriguing, they found the puppets I’d always adored as a kid the least interesting part of the show. They were far more interested in Rogers himself. They loved it when he showed them how something worked and especially loved it when he fed the fish.

    I asked my youngest two, as they obsessed over the fish, what was it about the show that appealed to them.

    After a beat, they gave me that look that parents will readily recognize, the one that best translates to “Isn’t it obvious?”

    “He likes kids, Mommy,” my daughter said. “Kids know when a grown-up likes them.”

    “And he’s not too loud,” my son added. “When we watch him, there’s no noise. You don’t have to worry about anything.”

    Kind and calm. So that explained everything. In a world of so much chaos and noise, kids liked calm sincerity.

    A couple of weeks after their Mister Rogers lovefest began, our family took a 10-day vacation, and the kids moved on, the way kids often do. They discovered TikTok. And Fortnite. And a world of YouTube gamers. I assumed they had forgotten about Mister Rogers.

    But then came fall. After a long day of school, my daughter came home with tears in her eyes. She had too much homework, she moaned. And on the school bus a pair of kids had called her a boy because she liked sports.

    I hugged her and asked what would make her feel better. A snack? Some fuzzy pajamas? A story?

    “No,” she said. “I think I want to visit your friend.”

    “My friend?” I asked, confused.

    “You know, the one who makes people feel better? The one with the fish? Can we snuggle and watch your friend, Fred?”

    I nodded. And I ran to cue up an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

    Say what you will about youth today: That their attention spans are too short. That their communication skills are lacking. That they’re drawn to things that are bright and shiny and temporary.

    The truth is they want what’s real, and they’re drawn to what’s kind.

    And even 21st-century kids recognize the beauty of Fred Rogers.

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