Beyond the Sweater and Sneakers
The first things most people think of when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is mentioned are the red sweater, the sneakers, the puppets, and the trolley. What a nice feeling of nostalgia. What a nice memory of the hours spent visiting our television neighbor. What a nice sense of comfort.
However, for a student who has studied Fred Rogers, accepting this feeling of nostalgia as Fred’s legacy does a disservice to the man behind the sweaters. What is truly amazing is that Fred left a different legacy for each person. It is up to each of us to interpret Fred’s legacy for ourselves. For me, Fred’s legacy is providing generations of children with the acceptance of individuality.
Over the course of the Neighborhood, Fred showed children that differences—different feelings, different lifestyles, different families, different religions—were reasons for celebration, not separation.
In his true timeless fashion, Fred once wrote, “I guess that a lot of people today are tired of hearing about individuality, uniqueness, and infinite variety. It really would be easier if everyone liked to eat the same food and wear the same clothes.”
I cannot help but dwell on how appropriate this quote feels to me today and how easy it would be if we could all live the same lives and never disagree. To many people, homogeneity seems like a perfect solution, but Fred was an advocate for each person’s diversity saying, “People will revolt before that happens. Just as a baby will vomit something which disagrees with him, so will mankind vomit something which does not agree with its basic humanity: the opportunity to develop each man’s unique endowment.”
Each of us is on the team of humanity. Fred Rogers helped so many of us to remember and embrace this part of ourselves.
Early in childhood, we often encourage children to sort objects by shape, color, and size. Children naturally begin to apply their sorting skills to people, too. By sorting people, the differences between them and us are highlighted. Oftentimes, the adults in a child’s life feel ashamed when that child sorts people. A natural response to the child is, “Oh, we don’t talk about skin color/religion/hair/clothing.” By doing this, we are teaching children that there is something that is unmentionable in differences, and therefore there is something unmanageable with differences. In an effort to be respectful of our neighbors, we accidentally stigmatize those who are different than us.
During this time of sorting, children often begin to recognize the differences between themselves and others. Very early on, children will segregate themselves into boys and girls, short and tall, straight hair and curly hair. It is hard for a child to remember that what makes them different, or identifies them as a minority, is a special gift they possess. It is what makes each of them unique.
Fred wrote, “Of course, what matters most for children is how they feel about their uniqueness once they do begin to realize that they are, in some ways, different from everyone else. How they feel about this early in their lives often determines whether they grow into adults who rejoice in the diversity of the world’s people or into adults who fear and resent that kind of diversity.”
To me, Fred’s legacy is embracing diversity. We embrace what is good about each and every one of us. We can learn so much about the world beyond our neighborhood. As Fred used to sing:
It’s you I like—
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings….
As we celebrate Fred’s life and career today, I wonder, what does the man behind the sweater and sneakers mean to you?
Maura Synder is a research associate at the Fred Rogers Center. She is a recent graduate of Saint Vincent College, where she was a Fred Rogers Scholars and manager of the student research and development lab, Incubator 143. Maura will start a Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 2017.
Photo courtesy of Jim Judkis.