It's not always a beautiful day in the world, but it is in "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," the public TV series aimed at preschoolers and created and hosted by Fred Rogers. In his neighborhood, there are no assassinations, riots or murders. But in the neighborhood of the evening news, which children also may see, there is all this and more.
If all the violence in TV news has been rough on adults in recent weeks and months, it has to be even harder on children. And so Rogers, whose "Neighborhood" diverts and reassures little kids on 250 public TV stations each weekday, prepared a prime-time special dealing with this problem, "Violence in the News: Helping Children Understand." Unfortunately, WETA has thoughtlessly chosen to bury the special in a 3 p.m. time slot, today on Channel 26.
"Violent television dramas often feed a child's own aggressive fantasies," Rogers has said. "When these fantasies are suddenly acted out in the real world -- and then played and replayed on television -- there is a great potential for confusion in a child's mind between real and fantasy violence. This confusion can lead children to very strange perceptions of their world."
From Pittsburgh, where he tapes his programs, Mister Rogers talks about the special in a manner that suggests his gentle way with children on the air is anything but a pose. "Oh my, it's very different from anything I've done in the Neighborhood," he says of the program. "Would you like to hear how I plan to open the show?"
Why yes, Mr. Rogers!
"Well I say, 'All over the world, there is so much violence in the news, I felt it was urgent to talk with families about it.' Then I say, 'This program is not for young children to watch alone. When children see and hear about frightening things, it's best for them to have an adult close by.'" Rogers feels that the negative effects of TV viewing would be minimized in children if, when they saw "sad and scary things" on the screen, a parent or some other adult were with them.
"The news could lead children to believe that the majority of the adults in this country are out of control," says Rogers, an ageless 53. "I think that's what frightens kids. The idea that adults are out of control is one of the scariest things in the world for them, and kids hate it. What I say on the program is that there's violence in everybody, that we need to recognize that propensity for rage. But there's also love in everybody. Whatever we can do to help love to grow in ourselves and others is just about the most important thing in our lives."
What he tries to tell children, to help them cope with the violence in the world and in themselves, is that we have to "recognize we all have a wide range of feelings," that "these can be managed" and that "we can do things with our feelings that don't hurt other people."
Rogers was prompted to do the special by the abundance of harrowing news reported on television in recent weeks -- the shooting of President Reagan, the attack on the pope and the murders of children in Atlanta. He does not think the way to help children deal with these bleak realities is to hide the news from them; after the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kenedy, Rogers did family specials in which he urged parents to "include children in their family ways of coping with grief."
Rogers says, "Some people think the best place for children to be when grandma dies or grandpa dies is at the circus." He sighs, "The best place for them to be is with the family."
Rogers does not advocate censoring the news to make it less traumatic for children, though he does say, "There aren't quite enough examples of people helping others in the news. Catastrophes and disasters occur and people often come forward to help others. A big part of the healthy news is people coming to the aid of people. I'd like to see more of that.
"I think children, like adults, bring their own drama to the television set," says Rogers, "and whatever is responding to that immediate drama of their own lives is what's going to affect them the most. If a child comes to the television set with the experience of having been rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, and sees an ambulance rushing someone to the hospital on the news, he or she will translate that into their own experience and it will be multiplied because of that."
Children develop an intimate relationship with television early in their lives, and unfortunately, they don't watch only benign, positive, children's programs like the one put on by Mister Rogers. "I'm just astounded at what children watch on television," he says. "It doesn't matter what time it's on, and I wish the programmers would remember that. I've been told there are 1 million children in this country who watch Johnny Carson, and he comes on very late at night.
"The television screen," Rogers says, "is developmentally analogous in infancy to a mother's face. A mother's face to a young child is a map of the world, and they look at television the same way. If this thing called television is as powerful to them as a mother's face, think what that means to the inner life of a growing human being!"
Would we like to hear how he ends his special? Yes, we would. In an "allegory" about an errant tree, Mister Rogers has to explain to the puppet Daniel Striped Tiger about good feelings and bad feelings. Daniel says, "Sometimes I feel like doing bad things . . . I was wild before I got to be tame, you know," and Mister Rogers says, "I know, Daniel, Everybody was."
Mister Rogers then tells the children in his audience, who know him and trust him as if he were a member of the family, "If you see people hurting other people -- on television or any place else -- that doesn't mean that you have to be a person who hurts, too. Even if you're really angry, you can tell people how you feel. You don't have to hit them or hurt them in any way.
"No one of us ever needs to add to the violence in the news."
Thank you, Mister Rogers.