Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood has always been special to me. As a kid I watched it all the time. When the show moved to PBS, which is when I was introduced to it, I was older than the target audience, but I loved it anyway. I started watching it again after I went through treatment for alcoholism and drug abuse. People in AA meetings encouraged it because the show promotes all kinds of affirming, feel-good life lessons that alcoholics need to hear and practice. I continued to watch it irregularly until it was taken off the air a few years ago. It always made me feel better regardless of what was going on in my life.
My all-time favorite character on Mr. Rogers is Daniel Striped Tiger. It still amazes me that Rogers voiced both the shy, shy Daniel and the pompous King Friday. One thing I really like about Fred Rogers himself is that when he gave lectures or visited TV talk shows, he would bring out the puppets, but not behind a stage wall, so you knew he was the puppeteer and that the puppets were make believe.
As a kid, when the show took the viewers to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, I would always get immersed in that fantasy world, even knowing it wasn’t real. As an adult I saw an episode that really bothered me regarding this willing suspension of disbelief. Daniel and the other puppets are at school and Harriet the Cow is introducing a new pupil to the class (I don’t remember which one). Then the puppeteer’s wrist is suddenly visible. It freaked me out. It was very unprofessional! I became critical! But Daniel, always inordinately perceptive, also sees the puppeteer’s wrist. That freaked me out even more! Daniel pointed out the wrist and asked what was going on. Harriet (if I remember correctly) commented that the new character was a puppet and Daniel had an existential crisis. He said something to the effect of “Am I a puppet too? Am I real???” That blew me away. Poor little Daniel. It made me very uncomfortable because it brought up those feelings of derealization and depersonalization that alcoholics and survivors have (not to mention pot philosophers). But I guess in the context of a kid’s mind, it was a way to validate Mr. Rogers’ approach that simultaneously encourages fantasy while teaching that it is just that, fantasy.
I tried looking for the episode online, but I couldn’t find it. I’ve read that PBS is bringing Mr. Rogers back. I hope it’s true. I think Family Communications and the Fred Rogers Center are releasing the show on DVD.
When surfing for the show, I ran into Fox’s reporting of a study about Mr. Rogers’ negative effects. Fox claimed (neutrally, of course) that Mr. Rogers is a force for evil. They raised the study by LSU business professor Don Chance (it would be LSU), who claims that Mr. Rogers created a sense of entitlement in “kids today.” He and Fox say that current parenting practices of rewarding children for just showing up and constantly validating them regardless of their failure has contributed to their belief that they don’t have to work hard to accomplish anything. This relates to school, because they don’t believe they should put in any effort; they feel entitled to get A’s. I do think the “new generation” has a stronger sense of entitlement than those before it, and I do find it annoying. I don’t think we can blame it on Mr. Rogers. I think his validation is more on a sort of spiritual, existential level.
I do wonder at the sort of over-validation “confidence boosting” that helicopter-boomer parents give their kids. I would rather blame that sense of entitlement to capitalism. It creates that “customer is always right” and “I pay for my degree (and your salary” sentiment that turns many students into obnoxious, lazy beasts who expect A’s without stepping up to the plate and who expect your attention 24/7 on their (typically illiterate) terms. Note: This is hardly representative of all students. But faculty are indeed confronted with many students who think they are trading dollars for a superficial education, that reduces education to merely a piece of paper, professors into burger-flippers, and students into burgers (a lamentably common metaphor spoken among faculty these days). And this isn’t even getting into the hyper-individualism promoted by capitalism or the way that capitalism structures the self into a perpetually unsatisfied consumer, and all that high theory stuff. Let’s not go there this morning.