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Talking Through Tragedy

How to use the wisdom of Mister Rogers to talk to your children about tragic events in the news

October 29, 2018
Mister Rogers

Fred Rogers became famous because of the neighborhood he inhabited on his television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a place of respite where children could grapple with problems as small as tying shoes and as large as war. But his real-life neighborhood was Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

On Saturday, 11 people were murdered during Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, the deadliest act of anti-Semitism in the nation’s history. Only days before, in a separate incident, two African-American people were killed in Kentucky; the shooter had originally planned to target a historically African-American church.

With racism and violence rendering dangerous some of the places that children have previously thought of as safe, children — like the adults in their lives — are struggling to make sense of the world in which we live.

Mister Rogers offered a way to engage with the difficult questions that traumatic events can raise. Throughout his decades-long career, he deployed gentleness to be radically honest with generations of children about topics that can be hard to discuss, including death, bigotry, divorce, and anxiety.

Rogers, who was trained and ordained as a Presbyterian minister, rarely shied away from speaking to children about the issues of the day, issues that continue to be relevant.

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"I like you just the way you are, and what’s more, I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe."

When I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a recent documentary about the life and career of Fred Rogers, I was struck by how direct Rogers was with children. His show started in 1968, a year marked by social movements for racial and gender equality, as well as high-profile acts of violence. In the first five episodes of the show, Rogers featured a storyline about King Friday XIII, who ordered a border wall around his kingdom to prevent change — which couldn’t help but remind me of calls for border walls today. By the fifth episode, Lady Aberlin had convinced King Friday to take down the wall, through a balloon campaign promoting peace and unity.

Months later, Rogers rushed to produce an episode before Robert F. Kennedy’s memorial service to talk to children about assassination, explaining why adults might be sad and scared — and why it was OK for children to feel that way, too.

One of his final public video addresses came after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when he used his direct, but gentle, nature to address the nation about the massacre. While he was talking to adults, he married optimism with realism about the horrific scale of the tragedy. Although he never avoided tough topics, he always strove to make his audience feel loved and safe, to bolster them against harsh realities.

“I know how tough it is some days to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead, but I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were much younger,” Rogers said. “I like you just the way you are, and what’s more, I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe, and to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many neighborhoods.”

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Tips from Mister Rogers on helping children deal with tragic news events:
  • Turn off the television. Honesty about what’s transpired is important, but it doesn’t help anyone to be barraged with violent images.
  • Let children know that it’s OK to be scared and sad.
  • Answer their questions as best you can. Often, children’s misunderstandings can make events seem even scarier than they are.
  • Above all, make kids safe. Be honest, but also let the children in your life know that you’re doing everything you can to keep them out of harm’s way. Make them feel cared for.
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Early Childhood Parenting and Community Social-Emotional Wellbeing