“Some Things I Don’t Understand” is the title of a song from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In the chorus, Mister Rogers sings: “Why, why, why, why, why, why? I wonder, why?”
Children wonder about the world. Their questions are innocent, but often profound. Why is water so wet? Why is the sky blue? Why do people have different color skin? Why is that man asking you for money? Why do people have to die?
As adults, we sometimes struggle to answer these questions, either because we don’t know the answers ourselves or because we’re not sure our children are ready for them. Whatever our reasons, we should encourage children’s curiosity and acknowledge and respect their anxieties.
As creators and broadcasters of children’s media, public television can provide tools for children and parents looking for answers to difficult questions. But how do we respond when they ask about terrible events such as natural disasters and mass shootings? Children have questions about people who were harmed or killed by hurricanes, floods or fires in Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida and California, and those killed by violence in Las Vegas, New York, Texas and Northern California.
In the crowd of concert-goers at last month’s Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, among the 58 victims killed were a kindergarten teacher, an adoptive single mother, a president of a school Parent Teacher’s Association, an elementary school office manager, a school librarian and a bus driver. The deceased also included a special education teacher, a Girl Scout volunteer, a substitute teacher, two youth football coaches, a Little League coach, a children’s theatre performer and the mother of a seven-week-old baby.
The shocking nature of their deaths affects children who knew and loved them and those who may have heard about them in the news. Adults also struggle to make sense of what happened. So how can we, as producers and broadcasters of educational media, help children and parents talk about events that are so profoundly troubling?
Our first priority should be to acknowledge children’s anxious feelings. Through our content, we can offer assurances that the grown-ups in their lives love them and will keep them safe.
We can remind families of Fred Rogers’ famous recollection from his own childhood: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Contemporary PBS Kids programs have also featured content that models best practices for families in these difficult situations. In 2015, Arthur and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood both featured special episodes focused on preparing for destructive storms and dealing with the aftermath. And in October, Sesame Workshop announced its comprehensive initiative to help children cope with traumatic experiences.
Will that special content be enough? After the immediate tragedy has passed, how can we continue to help families navigate the difficult, often frightening, world in which we live?
Child-development experts have identified fundamental social-emotional skills — empathy, resilience, emotional recognition and self-control — as critical early childhood competencies. And we know that children need to learn and practice these social-emotional skills at a young age if they are to master and act on them throughout their lives.
As Fred Rogers put it, “I’m convinced that when we help our children find healthy ways of dealing with their feelings — ways that don’t hurt them or anyone else — we’re helping to make our world a safer, better place.”
Let’s reaffirm our everyday commitment to embracing and fostering social-emotional skills in our content. Whether a program’s educational focus is literacy, science, history or math, we should strive to inject our storytelling with the social-emotional competencies that are essential to all problem solving. When we create children’s content focused on a difficult topic, let’s also remember how important it is to meet children where they are by talking about it in a context they find familiar and relatable.
In Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, we use simple musical strategies to introduce complex social-emotional skills in ways that children can understand. While these little life lessons address everyday challenges children face, in the context of tragedy, the child-friendly language can resonate in powerful ways. Consider just a few examples of messages from the show.
Think about how someone else is feeling.
In some ways we are different, but in so many ways we are the same.
Ask questions about what happened. It might help.
It’s okay to feel angry. It’s not okay to hurt someone.
You can choose to be kind.
Characters from the series use these simple messages of empathy, resilience, emotional-recognition and self-control when portraying issues that preschool children are learning to navigate, such as sharing toys or resolving playground disagreements. It’s easy to see how those lessons apply to bigger societal problems.
While the messages may seem like common sense, the musical strategies are developed by writers and child development experts working together. It’s a formula pioneered by Fred Rogers and carried forward by many producers of children’s public television ever since.
We can again look to Fred’s advice in this area. When he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame, he said, “I feel that those of us in television are chosen to be servants. It doesn’t matter what our particular job, we are chosen to help meet the deeper needs of those who watch and listen — day and night!”
At a time when we’re all filled with questions that seem too complex to answer, we’re proud to be associated with public media professionals who have “chosen to help,” even as they struggle for answers to things none of us understand.
Paul Siefken is president of The Fred Rogers Company, producers of the PBS KIDS series Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Peg + Cat and Odd Squad. Before his promotion to chief executive of the award-winning children’s media company early this year, he was VP of broadcast and digital media. Prior to 2013, he spent nearly 10 years at PBS managing development of children’s programs.