Nobody spoke to TV audiences like Fred Rogers. From 1968 to 2001, the host of PBS's Mister Rogers' Neighborhood treated children like intelligent adults, forging millions of meaningful relationships through his gentle demeanor and compassionate approach to education.
Rogers's career and legacy is the subject of the new documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor, which hits theaters on June 8. Directed by Morgan Neville, the Oscar-winning director of 2013's 20 Feet From Stardom, the film delves into Rogers's pioneering educational TV work and his focus on understanding others' emotions.
In his trademark cardigan sweater and sneakers, Rogers established himself as a friendly authority on the link between emotion and learning. Although Rogers died in 2003, his lessons about communication and personal growth continue to inspire educators around the world. Here are four ways he became a master of emotional intelligence.
1. Approach conflict head-on
Rogers tackled subjects no other children's TV show would dare. He believed firmly that children and adults both need to learn to handle tragedy and grief. During the first week of shooting Mister Rogers' Neighborhood in 1968, he addressed the war in Vietnam with a story of war in "The Neighborhood of Make-Believe."
"The neighborhood is not a fantasy place where all these different people got together and everything was happily ever after," Jungle Li, co-director of Fred Rogers Center, says in the film. "When you have diverse people together with their different opinions, you have conflict. And that's what happens in the neighborhood."
2. Foster growth through acceptance
One of the many songs Rogers wrote for his show included the lyrics, "I like you as you are, exactly and precisely, I think you turned out nicely, and I like you as you are." For Rogers, spreading a message of acceptance and inclusivity was key to personal development. "I don't think anyone can grow unless he really is accepted as he is," Rogers says in the film.
3. Communicate better by listening more
One of Rogers's most unique characteristics was how he embraced silence, even calling it "one of the greatest gifts we have." When communicating with children and adults alike, he always created opportunities for the other person to share more, even if he or she were done talking. "His questions are direct, simple, short, and then he waits," TV critic David Bianculli says in the film. "Sometimes after they answered, he doesn't say anything else, so they say a little bit more. It's a perfect interviewing trick."
4. Expect mistakes
Rather than responding to mistakes with alarm or criticism, Rogers always expressed an understanding that things often go awry. According to Rogers, "the most important learning is the ability to accept and expect mistakes, and deal with the disappointments that they bring."
During a rare conversation captured on film behind the scenes of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Rogers explained his philosophy of emotional intelligence. "Children have very deep feelings just the way parents do, just the way everybody does, and our striving to understand those feelings and to better respond to them is what I feel is the most important task in our world."