Hedda Sharapan worked with Fred Rogers for more than 50 years, but one thing in particular stands out. It was a typical day on the set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and the cameras were rolling when the beloved host started buttoning one his signature sweaters.
“And as he buttoned it, he realized he was buttoning it wrong,” recalled Sharapan. But instead of stopping the show, Rogers looked straight at the camera and asked his TV audience if that had ever happened to them.
“To me, that was Fred Rogers saying we can help children understand that even adults make mistakes and about how hard it can be to do things like that as young children,” she said. “It has always stayed with me as a mark that children really mattered to Fred Rogers. This was not just an entertainment show.”
Sharapan should know. The longtime friend and colleague of Fred Rogers worked with him from the very first day of taping for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1966. Over the years, she served in a variety of roles in the television production and as the Director of Early Childhood Initiatives for Fred Rogers' non-profit television production company.
She is a script consultant for its award winning PBS children's series, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood and other projects, and on Thursday, Sharapan will be in Bradenton for a free community presentation called "What We Can Continue to Learn from Fred Rogers."
“What I say is, that this is not just for children,” she said. “What we heard in the viewer mail is that Fred’s lessons were for people of all ages. One woman wrote and said that ‘at 81, I need to hear those messages even more than the children.’
"The messages about dealing with our feelings and being able to talk about our feelings. The wonderful message that Fred gave us is that whatever is mentionable can be more manageable. Even in our adult lives, we can help each other.”
Creativity was another feature embedded in the 31 seasons of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. The host and creator of the show helped children see that creative thinking was important in all walks of life. Problem solving was a part of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe stories and in the songs Rogers sang on the show.
Music was a passion for Fred Rogers and Sharapan says he wrote more than 200 songs for his TV show. Titles like,"What Do You Do With The Mad That You Feel," were life lessons wrapped in a melody. Music is also a learning device used on its successor Daniel Tigers's Neighborhood and the reason why, Sharapan says, is simple.
“It helps you hear the message in a warm and nurturing way," she said. "I mean, lullabies are our first connection to music and think about how meaningful they are. Music sticks with you.”
One thing that has changed dramatically since Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s went off the air is the overwhelming amount of media devoted to capturing kids’ attentions.
“I think parents are struggling with it,” said Sharapan of children and screen time. "It's very new in our culture and in our parenting. And I'll just tell you, the other side of it is that I worked with some of the Daniel Tiger video games and apps, and we work very hard to make sure that they're more active, that it's not just passive watching.
"Here's an interesting thought that I got from Fred Rogers. I was writing an article about our work and I remember writing something like it's important for parents to balance loving and limits and Fred said, children want us to be the ones to say, 'this is enough.' It's really important for parents to feel comfortable saying no.”
One thing that hasn’t changed, says Sharapan, is the fundamental certainties of healthy child development.
“I remember Fred Rogers saying even though the outsides of children's lives have changed, their insides haven't,” she said. “And when you think about the kinds of things that help us in our world today, the most important skills are the social emotional skills. All the research tells us that it's about helping children feel good about who they are, helping them get along with others, and helping them deal with their feelings.”
It’s a principal, Sharapan says, that was deeply meaningful for her longtime friend.
"In fact, Fred Rogers named our company Family Communications, because what he hoped we were doing was enhancing communication in families in a positive way,” she said. “When you can take something that your child has been engaged with and help your child use it in every day ways, that’s a real gift.”
The presentation "What We Can Continue To Learn From Fred Rogers" is at 3 p.m. Thursday at the Manatee Performing Arts Center in Bradenton.