Fred Rogers: Esteem-builder for hard-boiled kids

February 27– Mr. Rogers died this morning.

In an interview, Mr. McFeely, the Neighborhood's postman, said that Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood had been running since 1966. That means I saw the first shows when our family lived in the Washington, D.C., area in the mid- to late-'60s.

Ian Jr. was two and a half and Margaret not quite a year when we moved there. Our small Cape Cod in Silver Spring was cozy for a family of four. We didn't watch TV much, and I didn't want it in the small living room. So I put the TV in the dining room, just off the kitchen, where I could keep my eye on it and the kids while I cooked supper. Mr. Rogers soon became a family ritual every afternoon at 5.

I thought I was turning it on for the kids. In reality, I was the one who benefited the most.

Mr. Rogers spoke to the children: You're a good person, an important person, your feelings are good. One day, as I listened, I stopped cooking, sat down in the dining room and wept. I felt he was talking to me.

I had grown up in a household with more than its share of troubles, and although I knew that my parents loved me, their own problems prevented them from responding to my need to be acknowledged and esteemed. Having become a wife at 22 and a mom at 23 and again at 25, I had prematurely taken on the role of nurturer, yet I still craved a lot of care. I needed a boost to my self-esteem.

And now I had Mr. Rogers.

When he sang "What do you do with the mad that you feel?" I felt he was speaking to my son– a child who, from a very young age, became quickly frustrated and angry. Now a hard-boiled cop, my son doesn't remember enjoying Mr. Rogers; he only recalls poking fun at him as he grew older, thinking the show was sissy stuff. But I remember the cop as boy, sitting enthralled in front of the TV, listening to Mr. Rogers.

Similarly, Mr. Rogers reminded the children (and me) that "Everything grows together. Everything is one piece. Your nose grows as your toes grow as your ears grow..." It helped me find a way to talk about these things with my kids. As Margaret grew into a toddler, she also watched and sang and danced along with the tunes.

Mr. Rogers was gentle on the ears, but he was intelligent. He played like a kid, but he never talked down to them. He combined music and knowledge of child psychology and a wonderful spiritual sense to help children feel good about themselves and to deal with the everyday questions and fears: darkness and the bogeyman, whether you can get flushed down the toilet with the water, what happens to dead pets, differences between boys and girls, and the divorce of mommies and daddies. Mr. Rogers explored them all– for my kids, and for me, the mother. I felt he knew us, and we knew him as a member of our community.

He will be missed by generations of families. And sadly, the next generation– mothers as well as children– won't get to know this wonderful friend in our neighborhood.

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Epilogue: In a move station officials say was planned before Rogers died, public television station WHTJ, which appears on broadcast channel 41 and Adelphia cable 7, plans to begin airing reruns of the show at 2pm on weekdays starting March 17.

Kay Slaughter is an environmental attorney and former Charlottesville mayor.