Beyond the Heart-Shaped Box: Lessons on Love from Fred Rogers
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood exudes love. Viewers have warm feelings about the program, even if they have not seen an episode since they were children. The very first researcher to visit the Fred Rogers Archive, when our building opened in 2008, thought that she would start her search with the subject of love. But then she realized her dilemma. “Wait, I can’t search that,” she said. “The whole of Mister Rogers is love.” How could she ever research something so fundamental that it was embedded in everything Mister Rogers did? She was surprised to learn that love is a subject heading in our catalog and that she could read Fred’s statements on it in a number of documents housed at the Archive.
There are over 200 items in the Fred Rogers Archive that specifically address love. These include speeches, articles, essays, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood materials. What we see in the Archive over and over again is, “There are many ways to say ‘I love you.’” This is consistent throughout all of the items, no matter the audience. Most often Fred was speaking to children and parents through his television program, but his simple message about love is also found in the many speeches he delivered to colleges, universities, and professional organizations. Often Fred would sing “There Are Many Ways,” to the graduates and professionals, just as he did on his television program.
At Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in 1998, for instance, while encouraging the students to reflect on the people who helped them throughout their lives, Fred said, “If they’ve loved you and encouraged you, and wanted what was best in life for you, they’re right inside yourself.” Fred assured the graduates that they “don’t ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you.” There is no right or wrong way to express or accept love. Just being yourself is enough.
These statements seem simple, but delving into the Archive gives you a greater understanding of the ideas behind the message. In the month of February, when we are inclined to celebrate love, here are some lessons about love from Fred.
If you study Fred’s writings on love, you will see that caring and helping behaviors are the foundations of healthy, loving relationships. Helping someone in need is saying, “I love you.” Caring about your child’s diet and activities is a way of saying, “I love you.” Young children may not help and care in the same way as their parents, but Mister Rogers assured them that they could express their love in many meaningful ways. He sometimes sang, “Cleaning up a room can say ‘I love you.’”
According to Fred, helping and caring not only set the basis for healthy relationships; they also lead to a love of learning. In the Archive, many of the materials on education and learning include statements about love. In December 1993, Fred spoke at a news conference about PBS’s Ready To Learn service. He opened his statement by speaking about the children who are enthusiastically able to learn “because they want to please the people they love.” He also said, “The children who find it hard to learn find it hard to love themselves or anybody else.” Mutual helping and caring between children and their parents or caregivers is a vital part of starting children’s successful educational careers and inspiring them to continue learning throughout their lifetimes.
Of course, love isn’t only related to caring and helping; it is also connected to anger. Loving relationships are not always smooth, happy, and tender. Many of the archival items that focus on love also contain the words hate, anger, and rage. You often see this sentence from Fred: “It’s the people we love the most who can make us the maddest.” It makes sense, of course. Our emotions are the strongest when they come to people we love, so the negative feelings can sometimes be overwhelming. What is important is that children know how to express their anger in healthy, safe ways. In February 1993, Mister Rogers devoted a week of programs to the happy and angry feelings associated with love. In the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, Lady Aberlin asked her neighbors, “What is love?” She was confused after seeing King Friday and Queen Sara argue and then suddenly get along well together. Lady Aberlin learned that love is complex and sometimes difficult, and that it should be celebrated and appreciated.
As our very first researcher pointed out, love is evident throughout Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I would like to share Fred’s closing to his 1991 speech at the PBS Development Conference in Tucson, Arizona: “‘It works both ways, doesn’t it?’ said Daniel Striped Tiger. ‘Good things usually do.’”
Photo courtesy of Jim Judkis.