Daniel Tiger’s Rhythms of Grace
One of the perks of becoming a dad has been finding an excuse to watch more cartoons. My daughter is too young to enjoy (or, thankfully, to reject) classic shows from my childhood, so our limited screen time involves shows explicitly aimed at the toddler demographic. The one that easily won her favor is Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, a continuation of Fred Rogers’s legacy at PBS. The show adapts and expands the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, paying homage to the lovable, shy puppet that appeared on the initial episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
I’m grateful she loves it. When I was growing up, my family often didn’t have cable, so thanks to PBS, Mister Rogers was part of a ritual that included Wishbone, Ghostwriter, and Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? Those shows helped fashion my love for reading, language, and mystery, but Rogers influenced (and I suspect many of us feel this way) my compassion and empathy for others. When he accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 Emmy Awards, some of his first words were “so many people have helped me come to this night . . . all of us have loved ones who have helped us come into being.” Even from a distance, those of us who grew up watching Rogers knew we belonged to that group.
In less than thirty minutes, Daniel Tiger presents a model of living that’s about toddlers, learning as a family, and how songs help us process emotions and identity.My daughter’s too young to understand the concept of community beyond church and family, but it’s easy to see why she loves Daniel Tiger. The show revolves around a family of tigers (one member of the toddler holy trifecta — the others are dogs and elephants); we’re treated to the perspective of four-year-old Daniel as he interacts with his family and other animal neighbors, including baby sister Margaret. It’s a winning formula for keeping my daughter’s attention: the talking animals, bright colors, and multiple songs that fill every episode manage the impossible and keep her still for nearly thirty minutes. Beyond applauding my daughter’s good taste, I’m happy she’s happy. If you have a toddler, you’ll agree that’s a pretty good standard.
The show’s structure is simplistic and familiar for those of us who know the original PBS show: each episode has a central moral focus revealed through Daniel’s interactions with others and in that episode’s songs. Music was immensely important to Rogers, too; he claimed that through it he could say who he was and what he felt: “In those days, you didn’t speak your feelings as much as express them artistically. ” A Christianity Today interview from nearly two decades ago picked up on this same idea, as Rogers paused to recount why the concept of being a good neighbor was central to the way he viewed music:
Every Sunday, my wife and I used to go to the nursing home to visit him [Dr. William Orr]. One Sunday we had just sung ”A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and I was full of this one verse. I said, “Dr. Orr, we just sang this hymn and I’ve got to ask you about part of it. You know where it says — The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him. For, lo, his doom is sure. . . . one little word will fell him? Dr. Orr, what is that one thing that would wipe out evil?” He said, “Evil simply disintegrates in the presence of forgiveness. . . . if you can look with the eyes of the Advocate on your neighbor, those are the eyes of Jesus.” I’ve never forgotten that.
It’s no secret Rogers earned a seminary degree and would eventually become a licensed Presbyterian minister, and just as much has been written about how music and songs became the vehicle for Rogers’s message of neighborly advocacy. It’s unsurprising then that Daniel Tiger adopts the same strategy. When the show was new, its producers spoke about how Rogers’s influence in Daniel Tiger manifests “in some cases as cover songs, and in others as inspiration for new musical strategies.” If you’ve seen the show, you know the truth of what I’m about to say: those songs are addictive.
Take, for example, this song about using your words (originally written by Rogers) instead of angrily expressing your emotions. Or maybe this one about cleaning and picking up messes as soon as you’ve finished lunch or playing. There’s this other song about controlling anger and “counting to four” (one that has probably been more helpful for me than for my daughter, if I’ honest). There are also songs about coming to terms with your own limitations, and how that’s okay too.
I’m overly sentimental, but those moments watching the show and learning these songs with my daughter have been some of the best we’ve had together. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood presents difficult topics in inconspicuous and disarming ways, and there’s not enough said about how Daniel’s parents are willing to stop and help him understand the world and his own feelings. And that’s appropriate since Daniel Tiger isn’t Fred’s original puppet (I agree that the red sweater is deceiving). Rather, “[t]he characters are the children of the beloved puppets from Fred’s Neighborhood of Make-Believe and our series star, Daniel Tiger, is the son of Daniel Striped Tiger, Fred’s first puppet.”
In less than thirty minutes, Daniel Tiger presents a model of living that’s about toddlers, learning as a family, and how songs help us process emotions and identity. But just as important is the way the show speaks to parents, acknowledging how we’ve learned to be good neighbors and the responsibility we have to model those lessons to our children. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood continues the legacy of Fred Rogers and presents it in a wonderful new way, a show about a once-small Tiger grown up and, like many of us, passing on to his children what he learned from the quiet Presbyterian minister.
You see, what Mister Rogers did for me, Daniel Tiger does for my daughter. These songs have become little liturgies that shape her days. She can’t quite sing along yet, but even still she understands the connection between song, context, and purpose. When the TV is turned off and we sing the clean-up song, she helps me clean up. When we sing about using your words, she babbles and says whatever words come to mind. And when dad gets upset or frustrated and starts singing the control-your-anger song, she sometimes roars (which is the opposite of what the song teaches, but I’ll let it slide for now).
Perhaps the most significant effect of Daniel Tiger has been how these songs help reinforce our routine of singing a benediction every night before bed. We started singing it when Lucy was extremely young, a way of connecting our church’s farewell to our daily lives: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance on you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24–26). Her reactions vary from night to night — sometimes she closes her eyes and waits patiently for the song’s end. Other nights are cacophonous, a beautiful discordant mess of laughing and warbling because she’s trying to sing with us. Some nights are a struggle, the overtired toddler angrily just wanting to sleep. But the result is the same: my daughter knows this is how her days end.
The future impact of those moments isn’t lost on me. One day, my toddler will no longer be a toddler. But when that day comes, she’ll have the benediction as a reminder, to borrow Jamie Smith’s words from You Are What You Love, that her days have always ended with “a blessing and a charge to go, but to go in and with the presence of the Son, who will never leave us or forsake us — to go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
I suspect I can thank Fred Rogers for her understanding the benediction as much as she does. His song “It’s Such a Good Feeling” closes Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood just as it closed his show, albeit with slightly altered lyrics:
That I’ll be back when the day is new
And I’ll have more ideas for you
And you’ll have things you’ll want to talk about
I will too
Because it’s you I like
Every time we finish watching an episode of Daniel Tiger, this song reminds my daughter that endings are hopeful; they’re a chance for us to experience life and return — whether for tomorrow’s episode or from a night of sleep to be once again with each other. When Daniel sings “you wake up ready to say,” what I hear is that the Lord has given my daughter peace for one more night. Whatever she wants to say (or sing) in that new day, I’m ready to listen.
Being a parent, for me, has meant living with the unbearable thought that there’s a day coming when she might forget the songs about cleaning up, using her words, and helping others. Maybe she’ll forget about Daniel Tiger altogether. But she’ll have that benediction, and I’ll have the reassurance that I have been, and will always be, her advocate. It’s the least I can do for my neighbor.