In one of my favorite classic episodes of the PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Roger chats with Jeff Erlanger, an 11-year-old who used an electric wheelchair. After introducing the boy to viewers as his “friend,” Rogers asks straightforward and kind questions about Jeff’s life—his hobbies, his parents, his visits to the hospital—and patiently listens to his answers. Then he invites Jeff to sing the song, “It’s You I Like” with him. It’s an incredibly moving scene that showed young audiences the quiet power of respecting, valuing, and nurturing each person’s emotional world, no matter their age or background.
Rogers’s warmth and earnestness were hallmarks of his show, from the gentle manner in which he’d describe an ordinary experience like going to the doctor, to the way he’d handle more complicated emotions like jealousy or fear. Fifteen years after the last episode of Mister Rogers aired on August 31, 2001, its spirit of affirmation persists in excellent children’s pop culture, such as recent episodes of Sesame Street, Inside Out, and Kubo and the Two Strings.
It also lives on in an unlikely place—the modern advice column. Dear Sugar, Ask Andrew W.K., Ask Polly, and others challenge readers to reimagine the classic advice column as a place where adult problems are considered with dignity, and where feelings are taken seriously. These columns tackle heavy topics including depression, infidelity, drug use, and job dissatisfaction, but all firmly insist that a community can lift up and support an individual through his or her struggles. It’s an idea that directly echoes what Rogers championed through his life and his TV show: the importance of being a good neighbor and valuing each person just as they are.
This sentiment is a radical departure from the original newspaper advice columns, which were meant to offer practical guidance on etiquette and manners. They reiterated traditional values, while also luring readers in with the promise of salacious, though anonymous, stories. One of the earliest such columns came in the late 1890s, when a 20-year-old journalist named Marie Manning started giving advice as “Beatrice Fairfax” (after Dante’s Beatrice) for New York Journal. In a piece for Mental Floss, Linda Rodriguez McRobby described how the original format was more brusque than maternal. “Victims of spousal abuse, desperate unwed mothers, and jilted lovers all crowded for column inches,” McRobby wrote. “Manning’s approach to all: ‘Dry your eyes, roll up your sleeves, and dig for a practical solution.’”
This “bootstraps” attitude has since reigned as the most common approach taken by columnists. From classic examples like Dear Abby and Ann Landers to more contemporary (and risqué) ones like Savage Love, readers often expect particularly clueless letter-writers to get a bit of a tongue-lashing. Even the ’90s kids comedy sketch show All That featured a regular segment called “Ask Ashley” that parodied this style: “Ashley,” played by Amanda Bynes, would yell at and belittle fans who would write in asking painfully obvious questions. Likewise, one of the joys of reading Dan Savage is laughing at his raunchy, merciless responses. He regularly implores letter-writers who are dealing with a hostile or difficult partner to DTMFA (“Dump the motherfucker already”). Even without the same colorful language or ribald imagery, Emily Yoffe’s Dear Prudence would often advise an anguished letter-writer to “get over it.”
In contrast, modern advice columns (which I’d argue includes the latest iteration of “Dear Prudence” where Mallory Ortberg, formerly of The Toast, has taken the helm) feel as though they’re coming from a close confidante, rather than a sadistic personal trainer. In doing so, they achieve exactly what Rogers does in his ’97 speech—they allow each individual the space to be vulnerable.
Take, for example, the musician Andrew W.K.’s advice to a reader who asks how he can better deal with his depression. “Downer in the Dumps” writes, “You always seem so happy, and I really look up to you for that. But do you ever get depressed? How do you stay so positive?” W.K.’s response begins with a personal narrative about his own struggles with depression, and then moves beyond advice for one reader toward a grander reflection.
We can keep getting closer to that truth, and we can let our devotion to it become the centerpiece of our lives ... It’s a truth that tells us that life is more beautiful and awe-inspiring than we can even contemplate—and, most amazing of all, that we are a very real part of it. It tells us that it’s all going to be OK. That you will be OK. That you already are. Never forget this. I love you. Stay strong.
The author Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar columns also emphasizes empathy over scolding. In her column, “How You Get Unstuck” Strayed comforts a woman who is struggling to “get over” her miscarriage more quickly—without serving up platitudes about grief.
Don’t listen to those people who suggest you should be “over” your daughter’s death by now. The people who squawk the loudest about such things have almost never had to get over any thing ... Others are scared of the intensity of your loss and so they use their words to push your grief away. Many of those people love you and are worthy of your love, but they are not the people who will be helpful to you when it comes to healing the pain of your daughter’s death.
They live on Planet Earth. You live on Planet My Baby Died.
Strayed, who now offers listeners “radical empathy” via Dear Sugar Radio with her co-host Steve Almond, would respond to letter writers with intimate nicknames like “sweet pea.” W.K. would end each of his letters, “Your friend.” Each column is surprisingly affectionate, considering they’re exchanges between total strangers. The key to this intimacy is how the columnists see each inquiry as an opportunity to tap into something essential about humanity. In an interview with NPR, for example, Heather Havrilesky, the author behind the wildly successful column Ask Polly, explains how she sees her position as a columnist:
I don’t think I’m someone who’s ever going to be high up on a mountain, looking down at all the sad mortals who are still struggling ... I think a lot of people see themselves as these messed-up shells that need to be filled with something or these imperfect, bad, empty things that need to become better. And what I’m trying to tell people is you’re filled with so much beauty and so much potential and so much brilliance. You just have to believe in it.
This same belief in humility and genuine human connection is what an adult takes from revisiting the world of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Over the years, Rogers not only brought together children and grown-ups, but also people from diverse backgrounds and experiences. In a 1969 episode, for example, Rogers invited the show’s African-American policeman Officer Clemmons to come soak his feet with Rogers in a pool and sing together. In a 2016 interview with NPR, Francois Clemmons recalled how meaningful this scene became to him. “The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends,” said Clemmons, the first African-American to have a regular role on a kids TV show. “But as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet.”
Rogers offered something different from other TV icons—he used his show as a platform to actually give voice to children: their fears, their hopes, their pains, their purest expressions of joy. Each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood started with the same reassuring sequence showing the host entering his home, slipping on one of his famous sweaters, and changing his work shoes for comfortable sneakers. In this simple world, every question—big or small—was seen as worthy of respect; every feeling—good or bad—was viewed without judgment. Rogers answered questions in an open-hearted manner, often drawing on his own experiences and speaking directly into the camera, as if personally addressing each member of his TV audience. In one episode, he drew a picture using crayons and reflected, “I’m not very good at it. But it doesn’t matter ... It feels good to have made something.” In another, the camera lingered on one of Rogers’ dead fish with the curiosity and compassion of a child, imploring viewers to look, telling them that it’s okay to cry.
Today’s advice columnists carry on this same tradition of giving their readers the space to explore emotions they might feel they have to downplay, ignore, or hide from others. At a time when millions of adults are snapping up coloring books, and essays bemoan college students for seeking “safe spaces,” it might be tempting to see the gentler column as an outgrowth of a desire to prolong childhood. But the success of these columns points instead to the very grown-up need for settings where feelings are valued, rather than dismissed, and where the primary human response is compassion, rather than anger.
It’s not a surprise to me that the kinder advice column evolved online, at a time when so many are accustomed to seeing vile or cruel comments from strangers. Just as Mister Rogers showed that TV could be a medium for education, not just mindless entertainment or bad influences, these columns challenge prevailing notions about the internet as an intrinsically dumbed-down or hurtful place. Ask Polly and Dear Sugar showcase the best of the internet, its capacity to provide a space for empathy, rather than outrage or anger. Like Rogers, they assert that children and grown-ups can be wiser and better when they embrace love and kindness toward one another—and toward themselves, too.