May 13, 2017
Dr. Ellen Wartella, an internationally-recognized children’s media expert who was the inaugural PNC Grow Up Great Senior Fellow of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College, told more than 350 Saint Vincent College graduates and their families and friends at the college’s 171st annual commencement ceremony on May 13 to “care about, support and advocate for children.”
“Coming here today led me to rethink the role of Fred Rogers as not just a children’s television personality, but even more, a strong advocate for children, a man who talked to children and adults honestly and directly, and who addressed children’s fears,” Wartella said. “I strongly believe that if ever there was a time since Fred Rogers’ death in 2003 that we need Mister Rogers to come back it is now. The television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, was a fixture in my household and almost certainly in your parent’s home. Mister Rogers with his comfy sweaters and slippers – and he began each show dressing in these – Mister Rogers was the neighbor of America’s children. He was warm, he was caring and he was informative. There is ample evidence of why that Fred Rogers’ love of children is needed now.”
Wartella noted that it is not hard to find evidence of the really horrific state of the world’s children. “Across the globe, nearly 50 million children have been uprooted with 28 million fleeing brutal conflicts as refugees. And even very young children are affected: 12 million children under age 8 have been displaced in the global refugee crisis – and that number is on the rise,” she reported.
She added that the refugee crisis in the world, in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Africa, has had a powerful impact on children. “In 2015 alone, 98,000 unaccompanied or separated children applied for asylum status,” she said. “They’ve lost homes and loved ones and seen horrific acts of violence.”
“It is estimated that nearly half – 48 percent – of children in the world live in extreme poverty, which is defined as living on $1.90 a day. And children around the world are not getting the schooling they should: in 2013 alone, 59 million of primary school-aged children were out of school, with more than half (33 million) living in sub-Saharan Africa. This has long-term effects on children’s lives and society,” she cautioned.
Wartella noted that it is not just in other parts of the world that children are faring poorly. “In our own country, 1 in 5 children live in poverty, compared to 1 in 8 adults. That is 15.5 million impoverished American children. Twelve million U.S. children live in households that lack the means to get enough nutritious food on a regular basis. And one in every 30 children (2.5 million) is now homeless each year in America. And their educational attainment suffers: nearly 60 percent of all fourth and eighth grade U.S. public school students could not read or compute at grade level in 2013. And in 2014 it was estimated that more than 40 percent of U.S. children are entering kindergarten not proficient with basic literacy skills – and their chances of catching up are poor.”
“Now is the time to bring back the spirit of Mister Rogers,” she declared. “What do we need? Child Trends, an organization dedicated to assessing the status of America’s children over time, recommends that for children to flourish and thrive, healthy children should demonstrate self-regulation or the ability to recognize and control their impulses, manage stress and emotion. It is important that young children are able to show attachment to adult parents or caregivers, to feel safe and trust the adults caring for them. Helping children learn as well is best when children are cognitively as well as emotionally engaged, when their interest and curiosity about the world is piqued. And finally, healthy children should be able to communicate to others their likes, preferences, emotions and needs and they need to attend to, listen to and respond to others’ communication.
“What we have learned over the years is that children’s health and children’s cognitive growth are intimately tied to their social and emotional well-being – and wasn’t that the message of Mister Rogers? Taking care of children’s feelings, helping them to understand their fears, addressing their sense of personhood to help them understand themselves … these are all in the spirit of Fred Rogers,” she reminded. “While we cannot bring back Fred Rogers … what we can do – each and every one of us – is show compassion for, support for and caring about our children, the nation’s children and the world’s children. All of us need to take on the mantle of Mister Rogers – your graduation today from Saint Vincent College with its Rogers legacy ... is a perfect segue to your futures – as you become professionals, community leaders, parents, aunts and uncles, you can take with you not only the knowledge you’ve acquired here, but a commitment to the values of this school and its entwined history of Fred Rogers."
“The mission of Saint Vincent is very much in this spirit and I quote ‘to provide quality undergraduate and graduate education for men and women to enable them to integrate their professional aims with the broader purpose of human life’,” she concluded. “All of us need to care about, support and advocate for children.”
Wartella, chair of the department of communication studies in the school of communication at Northwestern University and the director of the Center on Media and Human Development, was also recognized with the conferral of an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.
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