Fifty years after Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was welcomed into American homes, there’s still no doubting Fred Rogers’ positive and profound influence on generations of children. Over the course of its 31-season run, the musician, puppeteer, and minister told stories, made crafts, interacted with his friends, sang songs, and took his young viewers on tours that demonstrated the importance of kindness, compassion, and being a good neighbor.
Really, it’s sort of amazing to look back upon old episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and see how effective Mr. Rogers was at talking to children about important issues and values, all without talking down to them. As it turns out, there was a specific philosophy behind the way Mr. Rogers spoke to his audience — a philosophy that developed into a quasi-language the show’s writers deemed “Freddish.” Its rules are still relevant today…
In a recent interview with Fred Rogers’ biographer Maxwell King for the Atlantic, former producer Arthur Greenwald revealed that, “There were no accidents on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Mr. Rogers was always very careful with the words and phrases he used around children, anticipating the ways they might misinterpret things he said.
Mr. Rogers also put a lot of effort into figuring out what children associated with certain words or ideas. For instance, he once wrote a song called “You Can Never Go Down the Drain” because he knew kids thought of drains as a scary concept that suck things down into the unknown.
He even wrote a different version of the “Tomorrow” song for shows that aired on Fridays so that children wouldn’t expect episodes over the weekend and be disappointed.
The Nine Rules of "Freddish"
Greenwald and one of the show’s writers eventually made a pamphlet outlining how to translate English into Mr. Rogers’ “Freddish” language.
“State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.”
For example: Don’t talk to strangers.
“Rephrase in a positive manner.” In other words, reframe a conversation so that you’re engaging children in serious concepts without scaring them.
Example: It’s good to talk to people whom you know are safe.
“Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust.”
Example: Ask your parents or teachers if someone is safe to talk to.
“Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive.”
Example: Your parents will tell you whom it’s safe to talk to.
“Rephrase any element that suggests certainty.” By eliminating the word “will” from a phrase, for instance, you ensure that a child won’t get hung up on someone else making decisions for them.
Example: Your parents can tell you whom it’s safe to talk to.
“Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children.” This just goes to show how inclusive and considerate Mr. Rogers was.
Example: Your favorite grownups can tell you whom it’s safe to talk to.
“Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice.”
Example: Your favorite grownups can tell you whom it’s safe to talk to. It’s good to listen to the grownups in your life.
“Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step.” Since young children sometimes get hung up on the right versus wrong or good versus bad, it’s important to remove the value judgment while giving kids a feeling of fulfillment for doing what they need to do.
Example: Your favorite grownups can tell you whom it’s safe to talk to. It’s important to listen to the grownups in your life.
“Rephrase your idea a ﬁnal time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.” This final step reminds kids that doing the right thing is part of growing up. Since being acknowledged as bigger, older, and smarter is important to young kids who are still finding their place in the world, it serves as additional motivation.
Example: Your favorite grownups can tell you whom it’s safe to talk to. It’s important to listen to the grownups in your life, and it shows that you’re growing up, too!
It all sounds so simple, but clearly it works: Mr. Rogers touched the hearts of countless children during his show’s run.
Now go forth and be the best neighbor you can be!