Have you ever heard anyone say, “It’s not very good, but I think kids will like it”? It might be a book, a play, a TV show or a movie. Perhaps you’ve said it. Because, you know, the kids haven’t seen Citizen Kane, so they’ll be satisfied with Prince Puppy Pooper V. As long as there are bright colors and loud sounds, they’ll like it, right?
Kids’ entertainment is assumed to be a few rungs down on the quality scale, and it’s assumed that those who produce entertainment for kids just couldn’t cut it in the world of “grown-up” entertainment.
I loved having those assumptions challenged as I read I’m Proud of You, Tim Madigan’s memoir of his friendship with Fred Rogers. Yes, that Fred Rogers. They call him “Mister Rogers”. Of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”.
Fred Rogers was not looking all his life to make it the world of show business. He didn’t dream of being a movie star but settled for the world of children’s television. Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. One day he happened to see a children’s television program with a lot of noise and commotion and pie fights. He thought, “I can do better than that. And kids deserve better than that.”
He realized that parents entrust their children to television at times, and that this did not always have to be a bad thing. So he made a television show that addressed children as people worthy of respect who had unique challenges and opportunities ahead of them.
His program (which became a staple of public television) addressed everything from bedwetting and bedtimes to death and divorce. He addressed children’s real problems in the safe and calm world that was his neighborhood.
Watching Fred Rogers, it was easy to assume he was a simple man. Which he was -- but simple in the good and not the negative sense. His was a simplicity that came from integrity and honesty and not from being slow on the uptake.
In fact, Fred Rogers was well read and well traveled. He loved to read challenging works of theology by writers such as Henri Nouwen, Frederick Buechner and Thomas Merton. He was good friends with the pianist Van Cliburn, and he met prominent world leaders.
We have a problem in our society because we see so many of the qualities that are important as signs of weakness. Many of the qualities that characterized Fred Rogers the man and his program (gentleness, tranquility, kindness and a lack of cynicism) are perceived as out of step with the “real world” of us sophisticated adults. But these are some of the very qualities that typified the life of Christ and that we are called to emulate.
In our entertainment and conversation, we too often value a knowing snarkiness that proves we aren’t vulnerable. It doesn’t take long for that cynicism to sneak into the entertainment and the lives of our kids. And our kids lose out because of this.
In the book, Madigan talks about how difficult it was to talk to Fred Rogers when he was considering divorcing his wife. How could one talk to Mister Rogers about such a thing? But Fred Rogers reached out to Madigan with compassion. And he expressed gratitude to Madigan for being willing to share his pain with him.
Madigan said that he didn’t want to sound sacrilegious, but he felt that when Fred Rogers cared for him, it was like Jesus was there. Which is, of course, how it should be when we care for others as well. Jesus took time to give children his best (Matthew 19:14).
(Though Fred Rogers is no longer with us, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” reruns still play on public television. And for a quality movie for kids about the life of Jesus, consider the animated film, The Miracle Maker .)