The History of Mister Rogers’ Powerful Message

Slate's Culture Blog
April 16 2013 4:26 PM

The History of Mister Rogers’ Powerful Message

In the wake of yesterday’s Boston Marathon bombings, many took to social media to comment on the tragedy. One of the sentiments repeated again and again came from Mister Rogers.

Aisha Harris Aisha Harris

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.
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Rogers’ recounting of his mother’s advice dates back at least 30 years. In 1983 it appeared in his book Mister Rogers Talks With Parents, where he explains that his mother was prompted to tell her son about helpers after seeing disasters reported in newspapers and newsreels. (Rogers did not encounter television until after his senior year in college, when his parents bought one.) After that book was published, Rogers shared the message through other mediums many times. And others began to share it as well. In 1995, a USA Today article on “Easing Kids’ Fears” in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombings began with a portion of the quote, and it appeared in the Boston Globe after Sept. 11, 2001, in a piece headlined “What Do We Tell Our Children?”

With the advent of social media, the quote has spread even wider, recapturing our attention each time a national tragedy occurs on American soil. Following the Aurora movie theater shooting last July and the Newtown school shooting in December, the comforting words of Rogers’ mother were shared again and again. After the Boston Marathon bombing, Patton Oswalt tweeted an abbreviated variation on the saying, which was retweeted thousands of times. (Oswalt later wrote a Facebook post very much in the spirit of Mister Rogers’ words; that post has been shared by hundreds of thousands of people.)

There is not much information online about Nancy Rogers, the woman who is credited with this powerful and influential message. Her maiden name, fittingly, was McFeely, which was passed on as a middle name to her son, Fred. (He, in turn, gave it to a recurring character on his TV show, Mr. McFeely, the deliveryman.) As the New York Times mentioned after Rogers died, Nancy Rogers also hand-knitted many of her son’s signature cardigans.

Rogers spent much of his life learning about the ways children respond to words and images. He worked with child psychologists when creating his show, and, in 1968, served as Chairman of the Forum on Mass Media and Child Development as part of the White House Conference on Youth. That same year, he addressed the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy on his show. “I’ve been terribly concerned with the graphic display of violence which the mass media has been showing recently,” he told parents. “And I plead for your protection and support of your young children. There is just so much that a very young child can take without it being overwhelming.”

Today his foundation keeps his commitment to youth education and counseling alive and has made his mother’s wise words a significant part of its message. It’s clear each time her thoughts are passed along on Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere that it serves not only as a comfort to kids, but to adults as well, a reminder to ourselves that there is still much good amid the bad.

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