August 11, 2023
The woman behind Mr. Rogers was not his mother or his wife. She was his teacher.
A giant in the field of child development, Margaret McFarland is rarely recognized for her contributions though she worked side-by-side with Dr. Benjamin Spock.
Before I get into her fascinating role in Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood....
A quick note on the passing of Margaret MacFarlane, similar name, no relation, and a giant in a totally different field who passed away this week at 102. Thank you, Robert for sending me this fascinating story.
One of the last surviving codebreakers from the team at Bletchley Park, Scottish woman Margaret MacFarlane was 22 years old when recruited to help crack Nazi secrets.
The Nazi military used an extremely complex typewriter called the enigma machine to encode and decode messages and the British government needed women with good typing
and mathematical skills to decipher them.The work of the enigma team gave the allies an edge that significantly shortened the war.
I'll write you more about Margaret Macfarlane's work in a later newsletter. For now, put on a comfy sweater and read today's featured
Woman Behind Mr. Rogers Stood Next to Dr. Spock
In Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, one of the most important messages children learned was how they could get mad without hurting anyone. In other words, we have the ability to experience even
the most complex feelings in a helpful way.
Fred Rogers learned this in his studies at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1950s when Professor Margaret McFarland helped him get in touch with his own childhood memories and feelings.
Here's how she framed it.
Anything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable is manageable.
Fred Rogers with Margaret McFarland, his chief consultant on the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. photo
Margaret Beall McFarland was born on July 3, 1905, in rural Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh. She suffered a huge loss when her father
died when she was five, leaving her mother to care for three daughters.
Her loving relationship with her mother became the bedrock of her career. "She gave me the sense the baby or the young child has great worth.... In the end I really wanted to be like my mother," she said.
Margaret earned her Ph.D. in Child Development at Columbia and then worked with kindergarten teachers in Australia before eventually returning to her hometown. Teaching psychology at the University of Pittsburgh she was the executive director of the Arsenal Family and Children's Center.
The center was a nursery school and counseling center for children and their families and served to teach physicians and other professionals about childhood development. Margaret
co-founded the center with the pediatrician and best-selling author Dr. Benjamin Spock and Erik Erikson, the developmental
psychologist known for identity crisis theory
Erikson commented, "[Margaret] knew more than anyone in this world about families with young children."
Margaret taught with stories, questions, and direct observation, rather than pointing out mistakes or criticizing students. Her most famous student, Fred Rogers explained, "For her, learning could only take place in the context of love. She believed that if a child doesn’t sense that the teacher cares for him or her, then that child will not be able to learn very much.”
Another student, Margaret Mary Kimmel, remembers Mcfarland bringing a mother and child into the classroom so students could see their relationship. "I learned so much from just watching her watch and describe to the class what was going on between the mother and the baby," she said. Margaret talked about how the child interacted with the mother. ‘Did you see her face and the baby’s face? And what about when he started to fuss? How did the mother handle it?’"
Margaret invited a sculptor to come to class at Arsenal Center and told him not to teach the children, just to
be enthusiastic about clay. “And that’s what he did. He came once a week for a whole term, sat with the 4- and 5-year-olds as they played, and he ‘loved’ his clay in front of them,” Rogers said. “The children caught his enthusiasm for it, and that’s what mattered."
King Friday XIII and Fred Rogers
Rogers took a class from Margaret at the University of Pittsburgh while studying for a Divinity degree. He had a side job as a puppeteer on a local public TV station and asked Margaret how me might better connect with his audience.
She believed he would be more effective on camera than working behind the scenes
maneuvering the puppets. She told him, “Fred, the children need to see you. They need you to help them distinguish between reality and fantasy.”
That began a beautiful friendship lasting more than forty years. She became his Chief Consultant on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood in 1968 and continued to mentor him until she died in 1987.
They met weekly and sometimes daily to talk about the show, psychology, scripts, songs and children. Fred took extensive handwritten notes and recorded their meetings on audiocassettes, “which I often overheard him replaying in his office,” recalled Arthur Greenwald, a producer and writer who worked with Rogers.
“She will make just one suggestion, and it raises the whole level,” Rogers told The Pittsburgh Press in 1987, “[she] was an enormous influence on me.”
Margaret McFarland with Fred Rogers on the the set
of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.
“In her presence, you seemed to be able to do more, think more, feel more, understand more than you ever dreamed you could," Rogers said.
Margaret never married or had children of her own. She lived alone in her childhood home with an expansive home library. Though diagnosed with a rare bone marrow disease, myelofibrosis, she continued working, researching the development of the ego 1987. She died at age 83, on Sept. 12, 1988. She's honored in
the new animated Mister Rogers spinoff Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. The main character's little sister is named Margaret.
Following Margaret McFarland’s death, many friends and colleagues created the Margaret McFarland Fund in her honor. The fund continues to
amplify her legacy, focusing on projects and programs that benefit her favorite population—children six and under.
Following up on the topic of child development, I'm referring you to a writer I just met on social media, Jaymi the OC Book Girl. She writes regularly about nonfiction books and this week she features Growing Up Great: Your Guide to the Newest Child Development
She's highlighting ten books on a wide range of topics, from fostering emotional intelligence to promoting healthy communication skills, all advice on a well-rounded approach to raising good humans.
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