Come Back Mr. Rogers, Come Back

St. Vincent College Commencement Address

May 13, 2017

First, let me say how honored I am to be here today as the St. Vincent Commencement Speaker. St. Vincent and I have a long history…directly related to the Fred Rogers Center…going back ten years ago when I was privileged to be the first Senior Fellow of the Center. Coming here today led me to rethink the role of Fred Rogers as not just a children’s television personality, but even more, a strong advocate for children, a man who talked to children and adults honestly and directly, and who addressed children’s fears. I strongly believe that if ever there was a time since Fred Rogers death in 2003 that we need Mr. Rogers to come back it is now. The television show, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was a fixture in my household and almost certainly in your parents home. Mr. Rogers with his comfy sweaters and slippers—and he began each show dressing in these—Mr. Rogers was the neighbor of America’s children. He was warm, he was caring and he was informative. There is ample evidence of why that Fred Rogers love of children is needed now.

It is not hard to find evidence of the really horrific state of the world’s children. Across the globe, nearly 50 million children have been uprooted with 28 million fleeing brutal conflicts as refugees. And even very young children are affected: 12 million children under age 8 have been displaced in the global refugee crisis—and that number is on the rise.

The refugee crisis in the world, in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Africa, has had a powerful impact on children: in 2015 alone, 98,000 unaccompanied or separated children applied for asylum status. They’ve lost homes and loved ones and seen horrific acts of violence.
It is estimated that nearly half—48%–of children in the world live in extreme poverty, which is defined as living on $1.90 a day. And children around the world are not getting the schooling they should: in 2013 alone, 59 million of primary school aged children were out of school, with over half (33 million) living in sub-Saharan Africa. This has long-term effects on children’s lives and society.

But the fact is that it is not just in other parts of the world that children are faring poorly—in the our own country, 1 in 5 children live in poverty, compared to 1 in 8 adults. That is 15.5 million impoverished American children. Twelve million U-S children live in households that lack the means to get enough nutritious food on a regular basis. And one in every 30 children (2.5 million) is now homeless each year in America. And their educational attainment suffers: nearly 60 percent of all fourth and eighth grade US public school students could not read or compute at grade level in 2013. And in 2014 it was estimated that more than 40% of US children are entering kindergarten not proficient with basic literacy skills—and their chances of catching up are poor.
These are horrific statistics—because we know how important it is for children to have the very basics of support for healthy development: to have a place to live, have nutritious food, and emotional support and caring adults. Not to mention access to education. Now is the time to bring back the spirit of Mr. Rogers.

What do we need?

Child Trends is an organization dedicated to assessing the status of America’s children over time. It recommends that for children to flourish and thrive, healthy children should demonstrate (1) self-regulation or the ability to recognize and control their impulses, manage stress and emotions—to show self-control, what is often called executive functioning. (2) It is important that young children are able to show attachment to adult parents or caregivers, to feel safe and trust the adults caring for them. (3) Helping children learn as well is best when children are cognitively as well as emotionally engaged, when their interest and curiosity about the world is piqued. Anyone who has been around a preschooler knows what sponges they are, endlessly curious about the world around them and eager to learn; and finally (4) healthy children should be able to communicate to others their likes, preferences, emotions and needs and they need to attend to, listen to and respond to others communication. These are the basic developmental achievements all children need to make. What might we add to these –that children develop positive relationships with siblings and peers for more empathic, open and warm interactions with other children—in short that children show kindness; and lastly, that children have the ability to show compassion for themselves, to be optimistic about their future life and show a capacity for and understanding of how to motivate themselves to become better, healthier people. Indeed we all want our children to grow up to be the best adults they can be.

For children to grow up in this healthy way, they need to be surrounded by families and communities to support them. Yet there clearly are factors in children’s lives which reduce the likelihood of healthy development and academic achievement —what academics call “risk factors”. Among these are living in single parent households, having mothers with less than a high school education, living in households with incomes below the federal poverty level, and living in non-English speaking households. The more risk factors a child has, the lower a child’s academic performance in literacy and math as well as less general cognitive flexibility.

What we have learned over the years is that children’s health and children’s cognitive growth are intimately tied to their social and emotional well-being—-and wasn’t that the message of Mr. Rogers? Taking care of children’s feelings, helping them to understand their fears, addressing their sense of personhood to help them understand themselves…these are all in the spirit of Fred Rogers.

While we cannot bring back Fred Rogers…what we can do—each and every one of us—is show compassion for, support for and caring about our children, the nation’s children and the world’s children. All of us need to take on the mantle of Mr. Rogers—your graduation today from St. Vincent College with its Rogers legacy…is a perfect segue to your futures—as you become professionals, community leaders, parents, aunts and uncles, you can take with you not only the knowledge you’ve acquired here, but a commitment to the values of this school and its entwined history of Fred Rogers. The mission of St. Vincent is very much in this spirit and I quote “to provide quality undergraduate and graduate education for men and women to enable them to integrate their professional aims with the broader purpose of human life.”

All of us need to care about, support and advocate for children. A former dean of mine would say at every graduation that we give to our children the gratitude we owe to our parents. Carry that thought with you — I wish you well and godspeed.


Dr. Ellen Wartella