03/20/2008 07:43 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How Do I Tell Frank Mr. Rogers Is Dead?

The only grandpa my 3-year-old will ever know and see routinely is a dead guy. He appears in my bedroom each morning, as Frank bounds up into my bed, literally pries my eyes open, and lunges for the remote. And there he is, our glorious ghost. To Frank, he is simply "my fwend, Mista Wah-jahs".

Mr. Rogers would have turned 80 today, and my husband this morning was singing "Happy Birthday" to him, and then adding "!" instead of "...and many more!" at the end, typical of the black humor that pervades our household. Mr. Rogers is dead, no question about that, but not to Frank. Right now, "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" is celebrating a 40-year-run. With Frank, I have been able to analyze the program that was indispensable to me as a child. I'm convinced it remains as vital as ever, years after Mr. Rogers' death.

I was shocked last year by the mercifully brief kerfuffle over Mr. Rogers' purported role in creating a generation of self-esteem monsters, young people both insufferable and practically unemployable, not least because I think of Fred Rogers as a toddler's own Studs Terkel. Was there ever a factory Mr. Rogers didn't love? What other kids' program devoted as much time to the dignity of hard work, by real people and not screeching, animated backhoes?

For me, the singularity of Mr. Rogers is not that he mollycoddles children into believing that the world awaits their blaze of brilliance, or that life is just an exquisitely-wrapped gift waiting to be opened. In fact, it's precisely the opposite. If there is anything on kids' TV now that attacks reality with such gentle insistence, I haven't seen it.

Life as presented by Mr. Rogers is joyful, but it is no tidy affair. As a child myself, growing up in what would charitably be called a fractious household, Mr. Rogers consoled me on the hard stuff I was starting to learn. People you love get angry. People you love don't always love each other. Being lonely, confused, or disappointed doesn't set you apart; far from it, those emotions comprise your first lessons in the human condition, that rough education we all have to learn, some of us earlier than others.

Take the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, which, at its core is far more real than fantastical. The cast includes puppets, but the plots involve anger, miscommunication, separation anxiety, wounded egos, embarrassments, and nothing is buttoned up at the end, like a cop show procedural. Problems are resolved, or sometimes unresolved but at least made understandable, over several episodes.

The contrast between the realism of Mr. Rogers, and the idealism of contemporary kids' shows is striking. A child I know of who is facing divorce said this recently: "Caillou's parents don't hate each other." Caillou, as seen on PBS, has parents who don't get mad at Caillou or each other, and sit down with their kids for playful, harmonious and nutritious meals. Caillou's struggles involve, say, an unwanted babysitter, an upsetting snowstorm, a coveted toy denied. Somehow it all works out in a matter of minutes. And Caillou (grating as its title character can be) is surely one of the better shows on for kids.

Compare this with the gravity of some of Mr. Rogers' songs. "Sometimes people are good. And they do just what they should. But the very same people who are good sometimes...are the very same people who are bad sometimes." Or this song, "What do you do with the mad that you feel....When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong...And nothing you do seems very right? Do you punch a bag? Know that there's something deep inside. That helps us become what we can. For a girl can be someday a woman. And a boy can be someday a man." Shows on these days may help teach your kid how to read, but not how to cope with tough reality.

And soon I'll have to make plain to my son the most intractable fact of life, which, of course, is death. "Dead" is starting to creep into his lexicon. Recently he asked, "dinosaurs is dead, right?' Yup, and so is Mr. Rogers. I find myself in the unsettling position of looking up how Mr. Rogers counsels parents and kids on death, to help explain the man's own demise to Frank. In a way, I hope that Frank, who is blessed with a very placid home life, will have long moved on by the time he faces the conundrum of that dead guy he loves telling us "it's such a good feeling to know you're alive". Another part of me hopes Frank will care. It would give me hope that 40 years from now, Mr. Rogers will still be on the air, looking hale and hearty as he always does, for the kids like me, who really needed him.