The profound influence of Mr. Rogers

Tom Hanks stars as Mister Rogers in TriStar Pictures' "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." Photo: Lacey Terrell/Sony Pictures Entertainment

By Barbara Gutierrez

Tom Hanks stars as Mister Rogers in TriStar Pictures' "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." Photo: Lacey Terrell/Sony Pictures Entertainment

The profound influence of Mr. Rogers

By Barbara Gutierrez
With the new movie about Fred Rogers opening in theaters today, University of Miami faculty reflect on his impact on childhood development.

In an endearing scene in the upcoming movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the revered protagonist, Mr. Rogers, meets a group of school-age children on a subway who call out his name and start to sing the song that he made so famous.

“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,” they chanted. They ended with: “Please, won’t you be my neighbor?” 

For 30 years, children all over America wanted to be Mr. Rogers’ neighbors and to some degree, they were. Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister, musician, and puppeteer, came into their homes daily through their television screens via the popular PBS show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” 

Dressed in a comfortable cardigan, he welcomed viewers into his home where he fed his fish, interacted with his puppets and neighbors, and taught valuable life lessons. 

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” premieres Friday, starring Tom Hanks. This debut has brought back memories to many who felt the impact the protagonist had on American culture.    

Rebecca Bulotsky Shearer, an associate professor in the University of Miami’s Department of Psychology who has worked with children her entire professional life, feels Mr. Rogers was “ahead of his time.”

“He was like a friend,” said Shearer, who as a child watched the show. “He was before his time. He instilled the idea of being mindful, being kind, being compassionate, being thoughtful, stopping and smelling the roses.” 

She said that all the principles he talked about gave young children a sense of security. 

“He was able to tailor a show to children and talk to children in a way that they understood and I don’t think this had been done before,” said Shearer.

Isaac Prilleltensky, vice provost for Institutional Culture and professor of Educational and Psychological Studies, remembers watching Mr. Rogers with his son Matan, when they lived in Canada. 

He said Mr. Rogers’ “nurturing demeanor” and welcoming manner made him almost like a surrogate parent to the millions of children watching.

“He made the kids feel loved and he projected a calm, loving, nurturing image which is really what we want parents to be,” he said. “The magic is that it was over television. He captured the kids while they were sitting in front of a screen; nobody could do that the way he did it.” 

Mr. Rogers’ deliberate emphasis on carrying out one task at a time – whether it was feeding the fish or talking to the mail carrier – also modeled single tasking, said Prilleltensky.    

“He was very much in tune with what we now know about brain development,” he said. “We should not overwhelm brain stimulation. Instead of multi-tasking, he was single tasking. Today that is sorely lacking.”   

Joanna Lombard, professor in the School of Architecture with a joint appointment at the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Miller School of Medicine, remembers watching Mr. Rogers with her young son William, now a 26-year-old University alumnus and playwright. 

“My son loved that show,” she said. “Mr. Rogers represented a golden moment of the day for children. Even then, the world was moving very quickly. He made a space for you to become a calmer person, and take in the world around you, and I think everyone needs that moment.” 

Lombard also appreciated how he could broach difficult subjects and made them accessible to the young ones. 

“He would acknowledge that sometimes we feel sad or mad or we get hurt or we might hurt someone else’s feelings,” she said. “He always had suggestions on how to deal with those feelings.”

He helped children understand that “feelings are not things that control us, they are things that we can control,” Lombard said.