Fred Rogers: A Role Model for Today’s Media Mentors
Recently, my third edited book was released featuring essays by 17 international thought leaders from the United States, Australia, Great Britain, Israel, Norway and Scotland. In Exploring Key Issues in Early Childhood and Technology: Evolving Perspectives and Innovative Approaches (Donohue, 2020), the contributing authors share their unique perspectives, innovative approaches and powerful ideas about the role of technology and media in the lives of young children and their families.
As editor, I took the opportunity to write an essay titled, Fred Rogers: The Media Mentor We Need to Navigate the Digital Age (Donohue, 2020, pp. 20-26). In it, I examined how his fifty years of work producing Mister Rogers Neighborhood during the analog age still informs how parents, caregivers, educators and children’s media developers support healthy development and early learning for young children growing up in the digital age. I shared lessons learned from my time as a Senior Fellow at the Fred Rogers Center and illustrated how grown-ups can and should bring all of who they are into their interactions with young children and why relationships matter most. And, I described Fred as an authentic and intentional role model and mentor who studied child development and used the technology and media of his day to connect with children and engage parents and caregivers.
What follows is an excerpt from my essay:
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was produced in an analog age, but Fred Rogers’ thoughtful, intentional and developmentally-informed words and approach to children’s media are still remarkably timely and contemporary. They offer essential guidance for families, educators and children’s media developers who are helping young children safely navigate the digital age.
Fred Rogers was intentional about all he did, so he consistently and authentically modeled the importance of studying and applying child development theories and emphasizing social emotional learning. He modeled interactions and relationships; consistent routines; moving at a child’s pace; allowing pauses so the child has time to respond and grown-ups can listen; looking directly into the camera and speaking to one child at a time; and always keeping the children first. He held himself and those around him to high standards because for Fred, nothing less than his best would do for the children who would watch and listen.
Fred Rogers was a student of child development. He always focused on the whole child and everything that makes each child unique. He recognized that whole children need whole adults in their lives, and he demonstrated that belief every day. Fred was a mentor and role model to parents and caregivers about the importance of bringing every part of who you are into your interactions and relationship with a child. The whole and wholly authentic Fred Rogers was a musician, an ordained minister, a child development specialist, a parent and a beloved children’s television innovator by being himself and being true to himself – Fred Rogers was Mister Rogers. Mister Rogers was Fred Rogers.
His familiar song, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” was, and still is, an invitation to children and adults to become a friend and neighbor. And in the neighborhood, he modeled experiences with technology that invited interactions, conversations and shared experiences intended to build and strengthen relationships between a young child and a caring adult. Today’s media creators would do well to reflect on the many ways Fred invited children into his world, kept them safe, offered consistent routines, offered caring interactions, built relationships, and based his content on what he knew about child development and early learning.
One of Fred’s gifts to all of us was his unconditional acceptance and affirmation – he liked us just the way we are. He understood that parents, caregivers and early childhood educators are not unequipped to guide children through the digital age, but they often feel ill-equipped. In Fred’s strengths-based approach, built on mutual respect and trust, he encouraged the grownups in a young child’s life to understand and value what they do know and learn what they can do, instead of telling them what they don’t know and what they can’t or shouldn’t do.
I can’t help but think that he would have been troubled by how digital-age grown-ups are struggling to manage their smartphones and always on screens resulting in the rise of “present without presence” adult-child interactions. How can we help digital-age adults put down the phone, turn off the screen and be present with presence – so that the young child with them experiences what it means and how it feels to interact with an adult who is engaged, tuned in and attentive?
Despite an award-winning career in children’s television, Fred always knew it was not about the technology. What matters most is relationships. Technology can be a tool to bring people together and help them communicate with one another as long as today’s interactive media includes interactions with others.
Whatever role you play in the life of a young child, you matter. Be a positive role model, enthusiastic guide and mindful media mentor to help children safely navigate the digital age. Invite, encourage and empower other grown-ups to become role models and “helpers” in your neighborhood. Start with what you know, understand what matters most, consider what it means to be a good neighbor today and embrace your role as a media mentor.
Donohue, C. (Ed.). (2020). Exploring Key Issues in Early Childhood and Technology: Evolving Perspectives and Innovative Approaches (2020). New York: Routledge.
Capotosto, C., Ma, N., & Neville, M. (Producers), & Neville, M. (Director). (2018). Won’t You Be My Neighbor? [Motion picture]. USA: Focus Features.
Donohue, C. (2017, November 13). PAST FORWARD: Reflections and Visions on Young Children and Technology [Fred Rogers Center Blog]. Retrieved from https://www.fredrogerscenter.org/2017/11/past-forward-reflections-visions-young-children-technology/
Donohue, C. & Schomburg, R. (2017). Technology and Interactive Media in Early Childhood Programs: What We’ve Learned from Five Years of Learning, Research and Practice. Young Children, 72(4), pp. 72-74.
King, M. (2018). The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers. New York: Abrams Press.
NAEYC & the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College. 2012. Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8. Joint position statement. Washington, DC: NAEYC; Latrobe, PA: Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College.
Paciga, K., & Donohue, C. (2017) Technology and Interactive Media for Young Children: A Whole Child Approach Connecting the Vision of Fred Rogers with Research and Practice. Latrobe, PA: Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College and Chicago, IL: Technology and Early Childhood Center at Erikson Institute.
Chip Donohue, Ph.D., is Principal of Donohue & Associates. He is Founding Director of the Technology in Early Childhood (TEC) Center at Erikson Institute in Chicago and a Senior Fellow and Member of the Advisory Board of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College. With Roberta Schomburg, he co-chaired the working group that revised the 2012 NAEYC & Fred Rogers Center Joint Position Statement on Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8. His latest book is, Exploring Key Issues in Early Childhood and Technology: Evolving Perspectives and Innovative Approaches (Routledge, 2020). Chip is also the editor of Family Engagement in the Digital Age: Early Childhood Educators as Media Mentors (2017) and Technology and Digital Media in the Early Years: Tools for Teaching and Learning (2015), co-published by Routledge/NAEYC.
TEC Center at Erikson Institute http://teccenter.erikson.edu
Exploring Key Issues in Early Childhood and Technology: Evolving Perspectives and Innovative Approaches (2020)