Did you know that Mister Rogers was supervised by a developmental psychologist, Dr. Margaret McFarland, during his educational experience? Dr. McFarland was among key players, such as Dr. Benjamin Spock and Dr. Erik Erikson. The mentorship and consulting was so valuable for Mister Fred Rogers that he continued to consult with her about his programming long after his classes were over.
This is one of the many reasons I call Mister Rogers “America's Television Therapist.” His therapeutic effect is one of the key messages of a newly released book called The Mister Rogers Effect: Seven Secrets to Bringing out the Best in Yourself and Others from America’s Beloved Neighbor (Kuhnley, 2020).
Mister Rogers did not shy away from discussing challenging topics on his program, and he helped children understand ways for dealing with sadness and death. Let’s explore three tools he provided his television neighbors for this necessary struggle.
1. Rogers encouraged empathy.
Mister Rogers disliked responses that reflected discomfort rather than empathy. In fact, such a message prompted Rogers to stop production of a show, a very rare occurrence. When a cast member in the Land of Make Believe told a puppet not to cry, it triggered the usually gentle and soft-spoken Rogers to issue a firm reprimand. He crawled under the table and said, “You are never to tell an adult, a child, or a puppet not to cry.”
2. Sadness after loss reminds us how much we valued that which was lost.
Tears are often an expression of sadness that communicate a loss of something valued. Rogers understood that to love and value something and experience loss is actually a gain (think "better to have loved and lost" than never to have had the opportunity). Feelings remind us that we are alive, even pain of loss signifies that we have had a loved one and a connection that moves us to tears.
On one episode of Neighborhood, Mister Rogers talked about his own experience with loss and sadness. He spoke of the loss of his dog Mitzy, who was very special to him as a child. When she passed away, Rogers cried and protested his family’s plan to bury Mitzy because he wanted to pretend she was still alive.
3. Feelings can be mentioned and managed in ways that do not hurt us or others.
Soon after Mitzy's passing, Rogers was given a toy dog to play with and pretend with. He remembered Mitzy’s tail and how it was curly. To make things more real while he reminisced, he offered to show his television neighbors a picture of Mitzy. He said, “I really missed her when she died” and talked about how much he valued her.
To demonstrate a strategy for mentioning and managing sadness, he sang and acknowledged the idea that people do indeed get sad and even feel bad. However, he went on to sing and remind children that these feelings, like all feelings, are temporary and that the same people who are sometimes feeling sad also feel glad (notice he identified core emotions here). He closed with making this applicable to each of us: “it’s true, it’s the same, isn’t it for me... Isn’t it the same for you?”
His song teaches an important lesson about regulating emotions. He acknowledged that people are not only sad or only glad, but that we can have a range of emotions at different times. He emphasized that these emotions are temporary and normalized this truth with his use of “you" and "me.”
Normalizing is another therapeutic skill, which we often use in group therapy because it helps people in a group see parallels between their feelings and their peers’ feelings. Normalizing helps people to know that they are not alone in their feelings.
Kuhnley, A. (2020). The Mister Rogers Effect: Seven Secrets to Bringing Out the Best in Yourself and Others from America’s Beloved Neighbor. Baker Books.
Anita Knight is a counselor, counselor educator, and author. See https://dranitakuhnley.com for more information.