Mr. Rogers’ Nine Rules for Speaking to Children (1977)

The max­im “chil­dren need rules” does not nec­es­sar­i­ly describe either a right-wing posi­tion or a left­ist one; either a polit­i­cal or a reli­gious idea. Ide­al­ly, it points to observ­able facts about the biol­o­gy of devel­op­ing brains and psy­chol­o­gy of devel­op­ing per­son­al­i­ties. It means cre­at­ing struc­tures that respect kids’ intel­lec­tu­al capac­i­ties and sup­port their phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al growth. Sub­sti­tut­ing “struc­ture” for rules sug­gests even more strong­ly that the “rules” are main­ly require­ments for adults, those who build and main­tain the world in which kids live.

Grown-ups must, to the best of their abil­i­ties, try and under­stand what chil­dren need at their stage of devel­op­ment, and try to meet those needs. When Susan Sontag’s son David was 7 years old, for exam­ple, the writer and film­mak­er made a list of ten rules for her­self to fol­low, touch­ing on con­cerns about his self-con­cept, rela­tion­ship with his father, indi­vid­ual pref­er­ences, and need for rou­tine. Her first rule serves as a gen­er­al head­ing for the pre­scrip­tions in the oth­er nine: “Be con­sis­tent.”

Sontag’s rules only emerged from her jour­nals after her death. She did not turn them into pub­lic par­ent­ing tips. But near­ly ten years after she wrote them, a man appeared on tele­vi­sion who seemed to embody their exac­ti­tude and sim­plic­i­ty. From the very begin­ning in 1968, Fred Rogers insist­ed that his show be built on strict rules. “There were no acci­dents on Mr. Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood,” says for­mer pro­duc­er Arthur Green­wald. Or as Maxwell King, author of a recent biog­ra­phy on Rogers, writes at The Atlantic:

He insist­ed that every word, whether spo­ken by a per­son or a pup­pet, be scru­ti­nized close­ly, because he knew that children—the preschool-age boys and girls who made up the core of his audience—tend to hear things lit­er­al­ly…. He took great pains not to mis­lead or con­fuse chil­dren, and his team of writ­ers joked that his on-air man­ner of speak­ing amount­ed to a dis­tinct lan­guage they called “Fred­dish.”

In addi­tion to his con­sis­ten­cy, almost to the point of self-par­o­dy, Rogers made sure to always be absolute­ly crys­tal clear in his speech. He under­stood that young kids do not under­stand metaphors, most­ly because they haven’t learned the com­mon­ly agreed-upon mean­ings. Preschool-age chil­dren also have trou­ble under­stand­ing the same uses of words in dif­fer­ent con­texts. In one seg­ment on the show, for exam­ple, a nurse says to a child wear­ing a blood-pres­sure cuff, “I’m going to blow this up.”

Rogers had the crew redub the line with “’I’m going to puff this up with some air.’ ’Blow up’ might sound like there’s an explo­sion,” Green­wald remem­bers, “and he didn’t want kids to cov­er their ears and miss what would hap­pen next.” In anoth­er exam­ple, Rogers wrote a song called “You Can Nev­er Go Down the Drain,” to assuage a com­mon fear that very young chil­dren have. There is a cer­tain log­ic to the think­ing. Drains take things away, why not them?

Rogers “was extra­or­di­nar­i­ly good at imag­in­ing where children’s minds might go,” writes King, explain­ing to them, for exam­ple, that an oph­thal­mol­o­gist could not look into his mind and see his thoughts. His care with lan­guage so amused and awed the show’s cre­ative team that in 1977, Green­wald and writer Bar­ry Head cre­at­ed an illus­trat­ed satir­i­cal man­u­al called “Let’s Talk About Fred­dish.” Any­one who’s seen the doc­u­men­tary Won’t You Be My Neigh­bor? knows Rogers could take a good-natured joke at his expense, like­ly includ­ing the imag­i­na­tive recon­struc­tion of his meth­ods below.

  1. “State the idea you wish to express as clear­ly as pos­si­ble, and in terms preschool­ers can under­stand.” Exam­ple: It is dan­ger­ous to play in the street.
  2. “Rephrase in a pos­i­tive man­ner,” as in It is good to play where it is safe.
  3. “Rephrase the idea, bear­ing in mind that preschool­ers can­not yet make sub­tle dis­tinc­tions and need to be redi­rect­ed to author­i­ties they trust.” As in, “Ask your par­ents where it is safe to play.”
  4. “Rephrase your idea to elim­i­nate all ele­ments that could be con­sid­ered pre­scrip­tive, direc­tive, or instruc­tive.” In the exam­ple, that’d mean get­ting rid of “ask”: Your par­ents will tell you where it is safe to play.
  5. “Rephrase any ele­ment that sug­gests cer­tain­ty.” That’d be “will”: Your par­ents can tell you where it is safe to play.
  6. “Rephrase your idea to elim­i­nate any ele­ment that may not apply to all chil­dren.” Not all chil­dren know their par­ents, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.
  7. “Add a sim­ple moti­va­tion­al idea that gives preschool­ers a rea­son to fol­low your advice.” Per­haps: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to lis­ten to them.
  8. “Rephrase your new state­ment, repeat­ing the first step.” “Good” rep­re­sents a val­ue judg­ment, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is impor­tant to try to lis­ten to them.
  9. “Rephrase your idea a final time, relat­ing it to some phase of devel­op­ment a preschool­er can under­stand.” Maybe: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is impor­tant to try to lis­ten to them, and lis­ten­ing is an impor­tant part of grow­ing.

His crew respect­ed him so much that even their par­o­dies serve as slight­ly exag­ger­at­ed trib­utes to his con­cerns. Rogers adapt­ed his philo­soph­i­cal guide­lines from the top psy­chol­o­gists and child-devel­op­ment experts of the time. The 9 Rules (or maybe 9 Stages) of “Fred­dish” above, as imag­ined by Green­wald and Head, reflect their work. Maybe implied in the joke is that his metic­u­lous pro­ce­dure, con­sid­er­ing the pos­si­ble effects of every word, would be impos­si­ble to emu­late out­side of his script­ed encoun­ters with chil­dren, prepped for by hours of con­ver­sa­tion with child-devel­op­ment spe­cial­ist Mar­garet McFar­land.

Such is the kind of expe­ri­ence par­ents, teach­ers, and oth­er care­tak­ers nev­er have. But Rogers under­stood and acknowl­edged the unique pow­er and priv­i­lege of his role, more so than most every oth­er children’s TV pro­gram­mer. He made sure to get it right, as best he could, each time, not only so that kids could bet­ter take in the infor­ma­tion, but so the grown-ups in their lives could make them­selves bet­ter under­stood. Rogers want­ed us to know, says Green­wald, “that the inner life of chil­dren was dead­ly seri­ous to them,” and thus deserv­ing of care and recog­ni­tion.

via Men­tal Floss

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch a Marathon Stream­ing of All 856 Episodes of Mis­ter Rogers Neigh­bor­hood, and the Mov­ing Trail­er for the New Doc­u­men­tary, Won’t You Be My Neigh­bor?

Mis­ter Rogers Accepts a Life­time Achieve­ment Award, and Helps You Thank Every­one Who Has Made a Dif­fer­ence in Your Life

When Fred Rogers and Fran­cois Clem­mons Broke Down Race Bar­ri­ers on a His­toric Episode of Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood (1969)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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