How to speak to children like Mr Rogers?

There’s not much everyone can agree on, but one thing that does bring the world together is our shared love and admiration for Mr. Fred Rogers. Part of what made the iconic “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” host so wonderfully warm was his unmatched ability to connect with his viewers. And his viewers, you may remember, were a distinct group: very young children. How did he do it?

Children’s brains are sponges, soaking up all the information around them to help them learn about the world. It goes without saying that the ways you communicate with kids may have a bigger impact than you might even imagine. How do you do it right? Look to Mr. Rogers, of course. In 1977, about a decade into the show’s run, Mr. Rogers’ show writers Arthur Greenwald and Barry Head picked apart Fred’s calculated approach to communicating with the kids. They dubbed his unique style “Freddish.”

But they didn’t just talk about it. Greenwald and Head put together an illustrated manual that lays out how to speak in Freddish. “Let’s Talk About Freddish” was a loving little parody that outlined the extreme care Mr. Rogers demanded for his scripts. “What Fred understood and was very direct and articulate about was that the inner life of children was deadly serious to them,” Greenwald tells The Atlantic.

Steps 1-9: Be Mr. Rogers
The manual was presented as a nine-item checklist for translating everyday English into Freddish. Per the pamphlet, Rogers’ guide to talking to kids goes as follows:

1. State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand. Example: “It is dangerous to play in the street.”

2. Rephrase in a positive manner. As in, “It is good to play where it is safe.”

3. Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust. As in, “Ask your parents where it is safe to play.”

4. Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive. In the example, that’d mean getting rid of “ask”: “Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play.”

5. Rephrase any element that suggests certainty. That’d be “will”: “Your parents can tell you where it is safe to play.”

6. Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children. Not all children know their parents, so: “Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.”

7. Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice. Perhaps: “Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to listen to them.”

8. Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step. “Good” represents a value judgment, so: “Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them.”

9. Rephrase your idea a final time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand. With this ninth step, “It is dangerous to play in the street” finally turns into “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.”

Rogers brought this level of care and attention not just to granular details and phrasings, but the bigger messages his show would send. Hedda Sharapan, one of the staff members at Fred Rogers’s production company, Family Communications, Inc., recalls Rogers once halted taping of a show when a cast member told the puppet Henrietta Pussycat not to cry; he interrupted shooting to make it clear that his show would never suggest to children that they not cry.

In working on the show, Rogers interacted extensively with academic researchers. Daniel R. Anderson, a psychologist formerly at the University of Massachusetts who worked as an advisor for the show, remembered a speaking trip to Germany at which some members of an academic audience raised questions about Rogers’s direct approach on television. They were concerned that it could lead to false expectations from children of personal support from a televised figure. Anderson was impressed with the depth of Rogers’s reaction, and with the fact that he went back to production carefully screening scripts for any hint of language that could confuse children in that way.

Try it. It works at least for me and helps me to better sharpen the message that I wish to send out.

Check out my related post: Do you bribe your kid?

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