How Learning Science Is Catching Up To Mr. Rogers

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Editor’s note on Aug. 8, 2018: This piece has been substantially updated from a version published in 2014.

A solemn little boy with a bowl haircut is telling Mr. Rogers that his pet got hit by a car. More precisely, he’s confiding this to Daniel Striped Tiger, the hand puppet that, Rogers’ wife, Joanne, says, “pretty muchwas Fred.”

“That’s scary,” says Daniel/Fred. He asks for a hug. The boy hugs the tiger. Not a dry eye in the house.

That scene is from Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the hit documentary airing across the country with a 99 percent rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes.

At first, such a film might seem superfluous. Why make a movie about a man who appeared as himself in hundreds of highly rated television episodes? Someone as familiar to millions of adults as a childhood friend?

At first, such a film might seem superfluous. Why make a movie about a man who appeared as himself in hundreds of highly rated television episodes? Someone as familiar to millions of adults as a childhood friend?

Not because it reveals some shocking hidden side to the TV host, husband, father, Presbyterian minister, puppeteer, composer, organist, best-selling author and noted cardigan aficionado. He wasn’t gay, says his good friend and co-star Francois Clemmons, who is. He wasn’t a Navy SEAL, either — not sure how that rumor got started.

What makes Morgan Neville’s biographical documentary so necessary, in fact, is that it shows Rogers was exactly what he appeared to be. Someone who devoted his life to taking seriously and responding to the emotions of children. In a word: to love.

Yes, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was slow. It was repetitive. This was thoroughly, developmentally appropriate; Rogers was informed by his coursework at the University of Pittsburgh, by pediatricians like Dr. Benjamin Spock and Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, and his mentor, child psychologist Margaret B. McFarland.

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