daniel-s-tigerMr. Rogers’ Neighborhood has always been special to me. As a kid, I watched it all the time. I was introduced to the show when it moved to PBS. Although I was older than the target audience, I loved it anyway. As an adult, after treatment for alcoholism and drug abuse, I started watching again. People in AA meetings encouraged watching because it promoted affirming, feel-good life lessons that alcoholics need to hear and practice. 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. Amazingly, Fred Rogers voiced both the shy, shy Daniel and the pompous King Friday. Both characters give voice to common anxieties, two halves of the same coin.

One thing I admired about Fred Rogers himself is his treatment of fantasy and reality. He kept the two worlds separate, but encouraged people to explore both. During his lectures or talk show appearances, he would bring out the puppets, but not from behind a stage wall, so everyone knew he was the puppeteer and that the puppets were make believe.

As a kid, when 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.  The show just gives you permission to do that. As an adult, one episode bothered me regarding this willing suspension of disbelief.

In the episode, 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! (How unprofessional for such a classy show!)  But Daniel, always inordinately perceptive, also sees the puppeteer’s wrist. Daniel points out the wrist and asks for an explanation. Harriet comments that the new character is a puppet. Daniel is thrown into an existential crisis. He asks 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 creepy feelings of derealization and depersonalization that alcoholics and survivors have. Maybe, for a kid, this story allowed Mr. Rogers to validate playing fantasy and reality at the same time. For me, the double-back approach was too much of a mindfuck for poor little Daniel.

Mr. Rogers does get slammed, though, for generating the cult of self-esteem. Fox News, for instance, reports of a study about the show’s negative effects, claiming (neutrally, of course) that Mr. Rogers is a force for evil. They talk about 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 that reward children for just showing up and validate them regardless of success or failure has contributed to the belief that kids don’t have to work hard to accomplish anything. This relates to success at school, because kids don’t believe they should put in any effort; they feel entitled to A’s. Yeah, the “new generation” does have a stronger sense of entitlement than those prior, which can be annoying. But we cannot blame it on Mr. Rogers. His validation is more on a spiritual, existential level.

I do wonder at the over-validation “confidence boosting” that Helicopter-Boomer parents give their kids. The blame for that sense of entitlement belongs to capitalism.  The market model creates the “customer is always right” attitude, and and the “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. (Yes, people say this.) Note: This is hardly representative of all students, and not all faculty think this way. But faculty are indeed confronted with many students who think they are trading dollars for a superficial education, the dynamic destroys education. 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. Let’s not go there this morning. I’m sorry, Daniel. Stay in the schoolhouse of Make Believe. It’s better there.

Note: I could not find the episode on line. Supposedly, PBS is bringing Mr. Rogers back. I hope it’s true. Also, Family Communications and the Fred Rogers Center are releasing the show on DVD.

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