Fred Rogers was a remarkable person who helped millions of children develop empathy and learn to talk about their feelings through his popular television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He was also incredibly adept at helping parents understand how to talk to children about very difficult subjects. He didn’t do it alone. The chief consultant for his show was the highly regarded child psychologist Dr. Margaret McFarland. Her insights, feedback, guidance, and advice helped shape the message and tone of the show.
As the world battles the new coronavirus and entire countries go on lockdown to try and slow the spread of the disease it causes (COVID-19), many are again sharing Mr. Rogers’ advice to “look for the helpers.” But through both his regular program and television specials and PSAs aired after national tragedies, he had many powerful pieces of advice for parents in times of national difficulty that are still powerful today.
Here’s five take-aways from Mr. Rogers that can help your family while we all work to slow the spread of COVID-19.
1. Ask kids what they know
“We often find that their fantasies are very different from the actual truth.”
It’s helpful to sit and have honest conversations with our kids about what’s going on in the world, and to start by asking them what they already know (or think they know). This can be an opportunity to gently dispel myths and reassure them with the truth. This can also be an opportunity to educate ourselves on the most important information from reliable, trusted sources so that we can distill that information for our kids. And if we’re unsure, we can reassure them that we’ll keep them safe.
2. Let kids know they can talk to you about anything
“What children probably need to hear most from us adults is that they can talk with us about anything, and that we will do all we can to keep them safe in any scary time.”
Sometimes all kids need is to know that we are there for them, no matter what, and that we’ll listen to them. It’s a great way to model empathy, too.
3. Give them a hug, let them know you will keep them safe, and find your own best way of coping together as a family.
“When children see and hear about frightening things, it’s best for them to have an adult close by. Somebody who loves them, and can put their arm around them.”
Fred Rogers never shied away from talking about very difficult and tragic things on his program. However, he deeply understood that kids mostly need reassurance and support from the adults they trust.
Whatever you choose to do together as a family is going to be individual. Make sure it works for you.
“The best thing in the world is for your young children to be included in your family ways of coping with the problems that present themselves any time, but particularly now in this very difficult time in our nation.”
The 1968 Prime Time Special
In his 1968 prime time special following the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy, Fred Rogers talked directly to parents about how to talk with and support their children through national tragedy. He reminded parents that children may act out their stresses and worries through play, and may act out inappropriately.
He also stressed that every family has a different way of coping with stress, tragedy, and scary times. Regardless of what that is, including children in family ways of coping is really important. It brings families together and help us process whatever we’re feeling, including any nervous energy we might have. Right now while we’re all doing our best to practice physical distancing, those coping strategies might include playing games, going for a walk, having a dance party, or doing some acts of service from our homes to help others who need it.
4. Be honest and genuine with kids, but limit information and exposure to unfiltered media
Another point he made in his 1968 special was that it was important to keep children protected from a constant stream of violence and tragedy in the media. News programs can be stressful for kids, but especially now. Disturbing reports of increasing infection and death are coming at a rapid pace and are likely to continue to escalate, and this can unnecessarily worry kids. While it’s important to talk to kids factually about COVID-19, we all have to make the call about what level of information our children need. For young children it’s especially important to limit or eliminate their exposure to news reports and reassure them with our calm words and actions that we will keep them safe.
5. Look for the helpers
“You know, my mother used to say—a long time ago—whenever there would be any catastrophe in the movies or on the air, she would say, ‘Always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers.’”
Perhaps Fred Rogers’ most famous piece of advice for preschoolers, many adults have found comfort in these words, as well. But within them is a call to action. We can be the helpers.
Many of you reading this right now are acting heroically on the front lines of the virus response and essential community support, whether you are a doctor, nurse, or other front line medical worker, or you work in a grocery store, or process and deliver packages, are caring for the elderly in nursing homes, working to get essential services to the homeless, or perform other critical community services.
And others reading this are doing what you can to limit the spread of COVID-19 and support the community by staying home and practicing physical distancing.
What’s clear is that although this is a scary time for many of us—and our kids—it’s easy to look around in our own communities and find the helpers, people ready to do what’s necessary to help others and work to keep everyone safe. And sometimes we don’t even have to look much further than our own families.
Thank you for being one of the helpers.
If you want to help further, check out our recent blog post with 13 ways to help others from home.