Won’t You Be My Neighbor directed by Morgan Neville (Tremolo Productions, PG-13, 94 min)
Starring Fred Rodgers.
The Virtue of Childhood and the Small Dismissals of Parenthood
There is a distance between a child and a parent. Too often, a parent abuses the disproportionate capacity for information, discounting a child’s experience in the process. When a child falls down and begins to cry, shocked that such an event has occurred, too often a parent brushes it off. Refrains of “You’re fine” combat the expressions of fear, doubt, and misunderstanding found in the child’s cries.
Or, when a child tells a parent that he or she is afraid of the dark, the parent often says there’s nothing to be afraid of, not considering for a second why the boy or girl is actually afraid.
All these small dismissals remove the valid and fledgling emotional experiences from a child’s lexicon. As a parent, I am constantly trying to move away from these pitfalls. Because I know something to be the case does not mean that my children know it. Furthermore, stating the facts without addressing the corresponding emotions can be detrimental to a child’s development.
Children are fully human after all.
I’m meandering around this point to introduce the radical work of Fred Rodgers. In the superb documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the filmmakers unpack the special life of Mr. Rodgers.
Considered eccentric to some, Rodgers entered television programming from a vocational angle. Ordained as a minister, Rodgers chose television as his pastoral calling. And more specifically, he saw children as demographic worthy of relationship and in need of better programming.
So, Mr. Rodgers set off to use his show as a tool for teaching, encouraging, and navigating the complicated emotional peaks and valleys of childhood.
Exhibiting the Revolutionary
Here, comparatively to his peers, Rodgers exhibits a revolutionary, ahead-of-his-time approach to children’s communication. He was keenly aware of what was happening in the world and how the evils of the world could strike fear and misunderstanding in the developing personhood of children. And so, almost every topic was on the table.
As an example, after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, an episode aired on losing a leader unexpectedly. In more general terms, Rodgers aired episodes on self-doubt, and other emotionally complex topics.
With candid behind-the-scenes looks at Rodgers and the whole production, pointed interviews with family members and friends, and the whole catalogue of Mister Rodger’s Neighborhood, the filmmakers weave an intricate tapestry of the man that was Fred Rodgers. In many ways, he was before his time, affirming the full personhood of children, and giving them space to feel and express their humanity. Where many shut down those feelings uncertainly expressed, Fred Rodgers faced them straight on, and became a guiding light to a nation of children in the process.
I can only hope that I offer a fraction of what he preached to my children, and affirm their personhood at every moment.