Mr. Rogers
Gene J. Puskar / AP

The Fetishization of Mr. Rogers’s ‘Look for the Helpers’

Turning the reassuring line for children into a meme for adults should make everyone uncomfortable.

After the senseless calamity of a mass shooting, people seek comforts—even small ones—in the face of horror. One of those small comforts has come to be Fred Rogers’s famous advice to look for the helpers. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” Rogers said to his television neighbors, “my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Lately, whenever something goes horribly wrong, someone offers up Rogers’s phrase or a video in which he shares it as succor: during the Thai cave rescue, in response to the U.S. family-separation policy, after a school-bus accident in New Jersey, following a fatal explosion in Wisconsin, in the aftermath of a van attack in Toronto, in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas school massacre, and more.

And so it was no surprise when “Look for the helpers” reared its head again after a gunman killed 11 people and wounded six others in a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday. Not just because the shooting marked another tragedy in America, but also because Rogers, who died in 2003, was a longtime resident of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, where the synagogue is located. It’s as if all the other crimes and accidents in which Fred Rogers has been invoked were rehearsing for this one. “A Massacre in the Heart of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” reads the headline of Bari Weiss’s New York Times column on the slaughter.

Once a television comfort for preschoolers, “Look for the helpers” has become a consolation meme for tragedy. That’s disturbing enough; it feels as though we are one step shy of a rack of drug-store mass-murder sympathy cards. Worse, Fred Rogers’s original message has been contorted and inflated into something it was never meant to be, for an audience it was never meant to serve, in a political era very different from where it began. Fred Rogers is a national treasure, but it’s time to stop offering this particular advice.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired from 1968 to 2001, and it continues to run in syndication and on streaming services today. It was intended for preschoolers, which means that anyone who had kids under age 5 and owned a television, and anyone who was a child of that age since then, probably became neighbors with Mr. Rogers. That covers just about the entire U.S. population, which explains why the man and his show are so recognizable. The program’s ubiquity also speaks to the applicability of the “Look for the helpers” idea—it’s easy to quote or cite on-air or online, and it binds people of many generations and walks of life in tender recognition.

But it was never meant to do that much work. Rogers was an expert at translating the complex adult world in terms kids could understand: a grown-up emissary to a children’s nation. “Look for the helpers” was advice for preschoolers. But somehow, when it got transformed into a meme, the sentiment was adopted by adults as if they were 3-year-olds.

One of the “Look for the helpers” tweets posted on the day of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre.

It’s a powerful notion for kids, especially very young ones. Fred Rogers Productions maintains a resource for parents on talking to children about tragic events that explains why. Children are small and fragile. They rely on adults for almost everything, from daily care to emergency rescue. “Look for the helpers” is a tactic that diverts a child’s distress toward safety.

Even for preschoolers, it was never meant to be used alone. On the part of the Fred Rogers website about tragic events,  “focusing on the helpers” appears among an eight-bullet list of tips. It also advises parents to turn off the television, maintain regular routines, and offer physical affection. Not only was this advice meant for children; it was intended as part of a holistic approach to managing a small child’s worry during a crisis.

Seen in this context, to extract and deploy “Look for the helpers” as sufficient relief for adults is perverse, if telling. Grown-ups sometimes feel as helpless as children, and on the internet, where this meme mostly proliferates, distressed social-media posts, futile emoji, and forlorn crowdfunding campaigns have taken the place of social and political action. Which isn’t to say that that sort of action is easy to carry out anymore. For a populace grappling with voter suppression, wealth inequality, and the threat of a police state, among other perils, it’s not always clear how citizens can effect change in their communities and their nation. Ironically, when adults cite “Look for the helpers,” they are saying something tragic, not hopeful: Grown-ups now feel so disenfranchised that they implicitly self-identify as young children.

Among critics of “Look for the helpers” as a meme, a common objection is that just looking for the helpers is insufficient, at least for adults. Instead, you’re supposed to strive to “be a helper,” a variation on the original that’s almost become its own meme.

But that assumes anyone knows who counts as a “helper” anymore.

Rogers attributed the line to his mother, who probably gave him the advice during the 1930s. Things were difficult then, but tragedy came in a different form. Illness and death, natural disaster, economic despair, and, soon enough, global war. In all these cases, there remains some clear line between a threat and its relief.

Those matters would complicate themselves in the 1960s and beyond, when Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood entered its heyday. The show addressed current events, in its own way, from violence to segregation to war. But even in the 1980s, when the Cold War still raged, threats like tornadoes still preoccupied “Look for the helpers” wisdom.

Fred Rogers diligently refined the language he used on his show, transforming simple but ambiguous ideas into polished, sophisticated ones that take children’s lives into account. It is dangerous to play in the street would become Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing. In that example, your favorite grown-ups accounts for all sorts of circumstances, from guardians who are not parents to authorities the child trusts for established reasons. It’s a genius phrase, and classic Fred Rogers fare.

“Helpers” is a similar one. It covers official authorities like police and firefighters, but also laypeople like bystanders and Good Samaritans.

Even so, it seems that Rogers meant the term to refer mostly to trained service professionals in a position of authority. In a 1986 newspaper column about the helpers concept, Rogers was still leaning on natural disasters as the paradigm for terror, and on childhood memories of newspapers, radios, and newsreels that fomented fear. In a 1999 interview with the Television Academy Foundation, Rogers clarified the idea more, talking about the people “just on the sidelines” of a tragedy. His hope was that media might show actors like “rescue teams, medical people, anybody who is coming in to a place where there’s a tragedy.”

This wisdom should have felt a little romantic in its aspirations, even in the 1980s and ’90s. Who “helps” avert global nuclear catastrophe, or climate change, for example? But today, the idea of helpers on the sidelines of horrific disasters isn’t just quaint. It’s dangerous.

After the Pittsburgh attack, President Donald Trump told reporters that the Tree of Life synagogue should have “had protection in mind,” by which he probably meant armed guards, or “good guys with guns.” Never mind the fact that the shooter had wounded four police officers during the standoff, thanks in part to the semiautomatic rifle with which he was reportedly armed. Those who advocate for guns everywhere see gunmen as the “helpers.” Those who do not construe the people who would limit access to them, or who would curtail domestic terrorism and white supremacy, as the “helpers” instead. The conflict over who gets to count as a helper is a complex amalgam of political and social conditions. But unfortunately, adapting Fred Rogers’s concept for the universe of kids to the world of adults allows any speaker’s favorite notion of “help” to fill in the blank.

The suspect himself, a man named Robert D. Bowers, appears to have construed his own actions as heroic rather than villainous. Bowers reportedly shouted “All Jews must die” before opening fire at Tree of Life. He advanced conspiracy theories about a Jewish incursion of government and society, including the false idea that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a humanitarian nonprofit, was funded by George Soros to import immigrants for violence. On Fox News, Lou Dobbs gave prominent airtime to an advocate of this view the same day as the synagogue massacre. And Trump has spread similar fears about criminal incursions by immigrants, not to mention other angry falsehoods. Bowers, Trump, Dobbs, and others all consider themselves “the helpers.” For those who want to look for them—or to be them—in a time of crisis, ideas of help and harmful actions are dangerously conflated.

Fred Rogers has a saintlike legacy for good reason. He touched people of all backgrounds and faiths. He modeled goodness and character. But his was never a gospel for grown-ups. It was designed for children, and entrusted to adults to carry out with kids’ interests in mind. (His attempt at a show for adults failed.)

We must stop fetishizing Rogers’s advice to “look for the helpers” as if it had ever been meant for us, the people in charge—even in moments when so many of us feel powerless. As an adult, it feels good to remember how Mr. Rogers made you feel good as a child. But celebrating that feeling as adults takes away the wrong lesson. A selfish one. We were entrusted with these insights to make children’s lives better, not to comfort ourselves for having failed to fashion the adult world in which they must live.