Mister Rogers and the Purpose of Education

by Mose Durst, Ph.D.

We know that educating children is more than giving them information. Children, like adults, have complex feelings and they need to learn how to manage those feelings. Further, children, like adults, are always in relationship, and so they need to learn how to build strong and positive relations, the social dimension of education. The academic, the emotional, and the social are the key aspects of early childhood education.

The challenge for the parent and teacher is how to help children become competent in these
areas. We certainly need models of success by which we can all learn to be successful. Our children may have grown up watching Mr. Rogers on television, but perhaps we should have spent more time watching his programs. For Mr. Rogers presents such a model.

Fortunately, a documentary film about his life and work, originally meant to be shown in select
theaters, recently became a summer success and eventually became available everywhere. The film presents Mr. Rogers in typical shows where he illustrates how to relate to children and how to help them develop the social, emotional, and intellectual dimensions of growth.

Whether in the documentary or shows available on YouTube, a critical aspect of his work is his
ability to listen carefully to what children say. He is less interested in telling, talking, or informing as he is in listening to a child. He is profoundly respectful of each child, and he knows the children have feelings that they need to have acknowledged before they can manage them. Through songs, skits, and make-believe play, the children open up to self-awareness and learn how to deal with their feelings.

“What do you do with the mad that you feel?” is a typical song that Rogers sings with the children. “Do you pound a bag?” the song continues. “Or can you stop when you want to?” Obviously, the song addresses the feeling of anger and how to manage it, but in a non-threatening way. In another scene Mr. Rogers shows the children an orange seed. He plants it in soil, then explains that it takes patience, time, to let it grow. He then takes an orange, squeezes it, and allows the juice to run into a glass. He shares the juice with imaginary friends, then asks, “How do you feel when you give something to someone?” The joy of giving to others is a feeling that children can now identify. Virtues such as patience, generosity, and
gratitude are taught in an indirect manner.

A profound love for each individual child is the core of Mr. Rogers’ behavior. It is, of course, the best that a parent or teacher can offer a child. By no coincidence, Mr. Rogers is also an ordained minister, for he truly sees in each child a divine image.

In a scene from his commencement address at Dartmouth, he asks the audience of graduates to take one minute of silence and reflect upon those people who contributed to their lives. Rather than talking about gratitude, he creates an experience where others can feel the meaning of the virtue. Again, like a good parent or teacher, a shared experience is more powerful than a lecture.

143 is the magic number for Mr. Rogers as it signifies the number of letters in the phrase “I love you.” He then illustrates the many ways one can experience love: A child playing ball with a parent; raking leaves together; reading a story to a child. Love is at the core of everything that happens in Mr. Rogers neighborhood, and a comment by an adult YouTube viewer explains why he returns to view an episode: to bathe in the care, kindness, and love.

Children are often confused when they experience divorce, death, or a public tragedy. They are especially reluctant to talk about their troubled feelings. Mr. Rogers tackles these subjects head-on, but with gentleness and care. He listens and allows the children to share their feelings as he gently draws them out of themselves.

Social awareness is another dimension of how he teaches children, not by lecturing them but by providing an experience of what he is trying to convey. During the period of the 1950s and 1960s segregation was a major problem in American society. How does Mr. Rogers deal with this issue? He provides a skit in which he sits and removes his shoes and socks. He places his feet in a small child’s pool and expresses satisfaction. In comes an African-American postman, and Rogers invites him to join him in the foot-cooling water. The man takes off his shoes and socks, and both men bathe their feet in the same pool. Next, Mr. Rogers offers his towel, on which both men dry their feet. Message: segregation is stupid.

Rogers is the model teacher and adult, as he affirms the specialness of each child, while also
promoting the learning that will help a child become a mature adult.

About the Author

Dr. Durst is President of The Principled Academy, a sister school of New Hope School, located in San Leandro, CA.