Mister Rogers and the Art of Paying Attention
The beloved children’s-show host knew what was at the heart of human relationships.
From the hungry cries of newborns, to the whining helplessness of tired toddlers, to the sulking of older children, kids demand their parents’ attention in many different ways. Adults use the phrase just looking for attention to imply that something is wrong with a child, or perhaps worse, that the child’s parents aren’t raising him or her well.
But attention has, undeservedly, gotten a bad rap. A child may seek it inappropriately or rudely, but seeking it isn’t bad per se. Humans are social animals: Reliable attention from other people promotes healthy social and emotional development.
The beloved children’s-show host Fred Rogers knew this well—he saw that kids benefit from the predictable attention of the big humans who take care of them. In the many tributes by writers and filmmakers to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and its host, now that 50 years have passed since the show debuted, there has been much talk of Mister Rogers’s gentleness, kindness, and empathy. His capacity to pay attention deserves attention too.
When, at the opening of each episode, Mister Rogers exchanged his jacket for a sweater and his loafers for sneakers, all the while singing “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” he gave children what they (and really all humans) crave: someone whose attention they could count on. The familiar routine and the steady, caring look that said “I’m so glad to see you again”—it all gave kids a sense that they were spending time with a grown-up they could trust. When Mister Rogers promised them at the end of an episode that he’d be back, they believed him.
About 40 years ago, when I was a young mother living in Mister Rogers’s real-world neighborhood in Pittsburgh, I became friends with one of the show’s producers, Elizabeth Seamans. She knew that Mister Rogers would love the quilts, wall hangings, and stuffed animals that I made for my kids and relatives, so she arranged to have him visit me on the show to see my work.
We started with the appliquéd picture quilt I made of my father fishing, and moved on to a felt wall hanging of my first son’s favorite words. Mister Rogers inspected each word closely, and spoke some of them aloud: “horse,” “dog,” and so on. He lingered over a picture of me with my great-grandmother, saying, “She must have been so proud to have a great-granddaughter named after her.” I showed him how to sew a tail on a stuffed rabbit I was making for my son’s fifth birthday, and how to make a toy called a button spinner. “I like the things you make,” he said. I felt a warm glow from his attention.
His comments weren’t just for me. Someone else was with us as we talked: a child on the other side of the screen. On camera, I was careful to speak in a way that I thought a young child would understand. But it was only when I watched the episode (and when I watch it still) that I could appreciate how deftly and naturally Mister Rogers included that child in our conversation. Every so often, he looked into the camera and gave a slight, knowing smile, as if to say, “Did you see that? What do you think of that?” The child watching must have known the smile was for him or her and felt noticed, just as I did.
Not long after, I saw Fred Rogers again at the baptism of a friend’s child, and told him that I was pregnant with my third. His response was not “Congratulations!” or “When is the due date?”—two perfectly kind things to say to someone who’s expecting—but rather, “That child will be very lucky to have you two as parents.” It wasn’t what one would normally hear, and there was an earnestness in his attention that I found disarming. But as the mother of young children, it felt good to be reassured that what I was doing mattered.
Children’s demands for attention can be grating, especially in the middle of the night or as a work deadline nears. Engaging fully with them may mean pulling oneself away from any number of important things. But as Mister Rogers knew, attention is at the heart of human relationships. Children benefit from the attention grown-ups give them in ordinary, everyday ways as well as harder moments when they are struggling. And this process of attuning to each other can benefit parents too—paying attention is a way to establish and strengthen their connection.
As a therapist, I apply this lesson regularly. Session by session, I build relationships with clients who come to depend on my focused attention to how they feel at any given moment. When I work with parents, I join with them as they try to figure out how to handle stressful moments with their children. I might ask them something as simple as, “Did you ask him how he felt?” The answer is usually no. These days, the project of raising children seems more stressful than it used to be, so my task is to remind them that parenthood fundamentally means developing a relationship with a person whose need for attention is as natural as breathing.
The ubiquity of screens has made attention scarcer than ever, but children need it just as much as they always have. When parents pay attention to their children as Mister Rogers did—with genuine curiosity—they tend to focus more on what is happening between them and their children, and less on their own stresses and to-do lists. If they can establish a pattern of responsiveness, they can do what Mister Rogers did with his sweater, shoes, and song, and build up the sense of security that kids need to thrive.