As a man who built a culture out of children’s television, would he be against Screen Free Week? It’s hard to know. Bud David Sewell McCann has some thoughts on that.
“What’s wrong?” my children asked, “Why are you crying?”
I looked away from the screen of my laptop and blinked a couple times.
“Mr. Rogers likes me just the way I am”.
Now, of course this made no sense to my children on so many levels. First—who is Mr. Rogers? Second—why does he like me the way I am? Third—why would that make me cry? But for those of you who grew up with Mr. Rogers, you get it. His kind word meant something. Means something.
So, just to be clear—the YouTube video I was crying over was his official “goodbye.” In it, he spoke to the camera and said:
“I want to tell you something that I often said when you were much younger … I like you just the way you are”.
Mr. Rogers, for those you who (how can this be?) do not know him, was the host of a children’s TV show called Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Every weekday morning of my youth was spent sitting in front of the television nodding my head to everything Mr. Rogers said, laughing at King Friday and his other sweet puppet friends and learning a thing or two from special guests like Yo Yo Ma or Lou Ferrigno.
As I said, I watched him every day. He was important to me. I felt like he understood me and that I mattered to him. So much so that thirty five years later, I wept in front of my children when he posthumously said that he liked me just the way that I was—and that he was proud of me.
Well—next week is “Screen Free Week” which means that families around the world will be turning off their TV’s and closing their laptops and powering down their iPads and using their phones only as phones for an entire week. This is considered a big deal and quite an effort and something to “prepare for.”
Our family will be taking the challenge. We have something of a leg up because my wife and I own and run an children’s audio story company and have tons of alternatives to TV and computer screens.
But then I got to thinking. What would Mr. Rogers think of Screen Free Week? As a man who built a culture out of children’s television, would he be against Screen Free Week? Or would he compare the children’s television and entertainment of today with that of his time and conclude, as many of us have, that a week off is a good idea?
It’s hard to know. All his quotes are about kindness and curiosity and love and more kindness.
But lets try it from another angle. Let’s go back to the future for a moment and look at today’s TV and internet/mobile/app children’s content. What is the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood of 2014? What program will the adults of the future recall with tears in their eyes? Which TV personality will make them sigh like Mr. Rogers makes us sigh?
I don’t know—but if it is out there—I expect it would have some of the same qualities as Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. These were the things that made his program notable and important to children around the world.
Consistency. He started every program the same way and held the same form for the half hour, with rhythmic repetition and continuity of theme.
Pace. Everything went slowly. He spoke slowly. He moved slowly. Even his guests slowed waaaaay down—and consequently I could not only follow them, but I could relax.
Kindness. He was kind—really kind. Not pretend kind. There was an authentic kindness about him that existed on and off camera. I knew it was true as a child and I know it was true as an adult.
Emotional Intelligence. He knew how I felt. And I was a sensitive boy who did not feel at home in my body or in my community. More often than not I was on alert and being with Mr. Rogers was a time of peace and relaxation—because I trusted him.
When I think about what bothers me about most (if not all) television or screen based children’s entertainment, it is the fact that it usually violates many of those four standards. In today’s programs:
There is often a lot of change. Newness newness newness—that seems to assume that children will get board unless the content is always in flux.
The pace is often fast. In some seemingly desperate attempt to capture and hold attentions, everyone talks fast, moves quickly and there are lots of edits and camera angles.
The characters are not kind. In fact they are sometimes mean. They play tricks and are ironic and sarcastic. I think the idea is to be funny, but I wince when I see how some of these characters treat each other.
There isn’t much room for the sensitive children. If there is ever a ‘teaching moment’ about empathy or honoring emotions—it usually comes in the form of a lecture. Children that are afraid of the underside of their bed don’t want to be told there is nothing there. They want to be seen and heard and felt. They want to know you are there. And Mr. Rogers—even though he was in Pittsburgh, PA and not my living room in Endwell, NY—was there for me.
So I wonder if it is all about screens—or is it more about what is on the screens. If there was someone like Mr. Rogers on TV today—I might consider loosening the household rule and include it. Maybe you know something that fits that bill. But until then, we will stick to our stories, our walks, our games and our occasional youtube videos of King Friday, Mr. McFeely, Lady Aberlin and Officer Clemmons—because in my heart of hearts, I still want Mr. Rogers to be my neighbor.