A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
How Fred Rogers Expressed Social Work Ethical Principles
The opening of any episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is marked by the bright and ascending sounds of a xylophone at the beginning of the show’s unmistakable theme song. Soon, Fred Rogers enters a modest-looking home to remark that it is, indeed, a beautiful day in the neighborhood. After his trademark exchange of a jacket for a cardigan and dress shoes for sneakers, Rogers concludes the opening song, stares into the camera and begins the show.
Invariably, every show in the decades-long history of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is premised on Rogers’ ability to connect with viewers, mainly children, to teach them a value, skill, or lesson. The children who watched his show would remember the lessons and values they learned when they became adults. At various points during the program, Rogers broached and directly addressed some of the most sensitive topics in society at the time, including war, violence, death, and racial oppression. His brilliance was centered in his ability to discuss these topics with children, always in a way that prioritized their feelings and their growth as young people.
I don’t recall watching many episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, but I came to deeply admire his work after watching the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—an admiration that deepened after seeing Tom Hanks bring to life so much of Rogers’ work in the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Since then, I’ve studied Rogers’ work and philosophy, and in the course of my research, I’ve been amazed again and again by how much his work overlaps and aligns with the Social Work Code of Ethics. It inspired me to analyze social work values and ethical principles from the NASW Code of Ethics and explore how Hanks’ depiction of Rogers’ work can inform our understanding of these values and ethical principles in social work practice, focusing particularly on the values that emphasize service, dignity, and worth of the person, and the importance of human relationships. What Rogers knew, even while in front of a camera and on a sound stage at KQED studios in Pittsburgh, was that connecting with children and forming a relationship with them was the heart of his work.
In social work, the value of service is further explained as an ethical principle social workers are called to uphold in their professional lives: “Social workers elevate service to others above self-interest. Social workers draw on their knowledge, values, and skills to help people in need and to address social problems.”1 The Council on Social Work Education reinforces the role of service in social work practice, explaining that social workers “use empathy, reflection, and interpersonal skills to engage in culturally responsive practice with clients and constituencies.”2
There are countless moments in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood when Hanks portrays different examples of the empathy, reflection, and interpersonal skills Rogers used to support others. My favorite occurs in a scene when Rogers provides emotional support to the journalist Tom Junod, played brilliantly by Matthew Rhys. Junod, who in the film is named Lloyd Vogel, is a freelance journalist writing a story about heroes for Esquire magazine. In the film, Vogel has a troubled history of relationship challenges with his father, and in a scene in a Chinese food restaurant, Vogel describes himself as broken. I don’t think you are broken, Rogers replies. Rogers looks at Vogel and invites him to engage in a reflection activity: “Would you do something with me, Lloyd? It’s an exercise I like to do sometimes. We’ll just take a minute and think about all the people who loved us into being.”
“I can’t do that,” Vogel says.
“They will come to you. Just one minute of silence,” Rogers says.3
The scene that follows is a brilliant demonstration of empathy, reflection, and interpersonal skills combined to manifest an act of service. The scene includes a full minute of silence, just as Rogers described to Vogel, and the audience cannot help but participate as well, thinking of all who have loved us, each of us, into being. This scene depicts a hallmark of social work practice: elevating the needs of others above our own to address an array of social problems, including poverty, mental illness, trauma, and injustice. Vogel, struggling with feeling “broken,” was met by Rogers’ empathy and interpersonal skills, which provided him an opportunity to reflect on the people, including perhaps his father, whose love brought him to that table, sitting across from Rogers. Rogers’ ability to relate with others, either in-person or through television, is the second example of a social work value and ethical principle depicted throughout A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
Fred Rogers and the Central Importance of Relationships
One scene, in particular, captured my attention and brought to mind the role of relationships as a primary tool in social work practice. Vogel arrives at Rogers’ apartment in New York City to conduct an interview for his magazine article. At one point, Rogers invites him to “meet” his puppets, which Rogers takes out of a suitcase. What follows is a brief conversation about “special toys” Vogel had when he was younger. Vogel shares that he had a stuffed rabbit, simply named “Old Rabbit,” which his mother had given him.
“She must love you very much,” Rogers says to Vogel.
“That she did. She died when I was young,” Vogel replies to Rogers.
“I’m sure if she saw you today, the person you have become, she would be proud of you,” Rogers says to Vogel.3
Vogel then deflects and returns to the questions he’d been planning to ask in the interview. What the scene demonstrates is the ongoing capacity for relationships to provide a foundation for support when one experiences suffering. The puppets, while designed for entertaining children, at that moment, provided an avenue for Rogers to connect with Vogel and encourage an expression of vulnerability. Throughout the film, the audience is able to see the progression of Rogers’ relationship with Vogel and how the writer continues to open up and share tender parts of his life. Rogers showcases a deep capacity for self-reflection as well as an awareness of his own power and privilege as a television show host to connect with and help Vogel. Part of what helps Rogers accomplish this is his extraordinary capacity for compassion and recognition of the dignity and worth of others.
Dignity and Worth of the Person
One scene in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood captures Rogers’ ability to identify and amplify the dignity and worth of all people. He joins Vogel and his family at the bedside of Vogel’s father, who is near the end of his life. What’s most striking is the way Hanks portrayed the most intimate components of empathy and compassion and how these tools are used to recognize Vogel’s father as a man, as a human being, in need of care. Hanks masterfully used moments of silence to let the emotions related to death hang in the air—discomfort, fear, sadness. Finally, Rogers remarks: “You know, death is something many of us are uncomfortable speaking about. But to die is to be human, and anything human is mentionable; anything mentionable is manageable. Anything mentionable is manageable.”3 Later, during the same scene, he leans down to whisper in Mr. Vogel’s ear, and the audience cannot hear what he is saying. Instead, we only hear Mr. Vogel’s response: “God loves you,” to which Rogers says, “Thank you.” Outside Mr. Vogel’s house, we learn what Rogers whispered when Lloyd asks about it on the way to their cars. “I asked him to pray for me,” Rogers says. “I figured anyone who is going through what he is going through must be awfully close to God.”3
What’s so moving about this scene is how it captures the importance of recognizing someone’s dignity at one of life’s most vulnerable moments—its end. Rogers recognized that Mr. Vogel, while encountering death, has purpose and worth. This recognition is made when Rogers suggested to Mr. Vogel that in the midst of his pain and suffering, his presence still contributes to the wellbeing of others. “Will you pray for me?” is a question that highlights this worth and Mr. Vogel’s dignity. This scene depicts a hallmark feature of the social work profession—connection and accompaniment that helps amplify the dignity and worth of individuals who may be overlooked by others in society. Supporting an individual who is unhoused as they try to regain consistent shelter or helping an individual suffering from a substance use disorder reconnect with loved ones, or being present with a child as they cope with feelings associated with bullying, are all ways social workers encounter and accompany those who are vulnerable. This scene from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood brings to life the everyday actions of social workers by portraying the emotional resonance of amplifying the dignity and worth of all people.
— Robert G. Hasson III, PhD, LICSW, is an assistant professor of social work at Providence College. He holds a BA in psychology from Saint Michael’s College, and an MSW and PhD in social work from the Boston College School of Social Work. His research focuses on the intersection of child welfare and immigration, and he’s particularly interested in examining mental health risk and protective factors for unaccompanied children who experience forced migration. Hasson’s research has been published in a variety of academic journals including Child Welfare, Child & Family Social Work, Children and Youth Services Review, and Journal of Loss and Trauma. He teaches courses on human behavior through the lifespan and diversity and culture in social work practice. In addition to his research and teaching, he maintains a small private practice in Brookline, Massachusetts.
2. Council on Social Work Education. Educational policy and accreditation standards for baccalaureate and master’s social work programs. https://www.cswe.org/getmedia/94471c42-13b8-493b-9041-b30f48533d64/2022-EPAS.pdf. Published 2022.
3. Heller M. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood [Video File]. Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures Releasing; 2019.
4. Roger F. The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember. New York, NY: Hyperion; 2003.
5. Long MG. Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press; 2015.