Book Reviews

Let's Talk About It: Stepfamilies

by Fred Rogers of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood
Review by Patrica Schiff Estess

Mister Rogers has been in the neighborhood for more than 30 years. Long before Bevis, Butthead or Barney burst onto the television screen, Mister Rogers has been talking about kindness and community, learning and love. What's so miraculous is that this gentle man in his cardigan sweater has survived and thrived alongside these hyper-kinetic, kid magnet shows.

His success is due in part to the fact that he has always tackled subjects that concern preschoolers - being different, being scared, being Red, being upstaged by a sibling, having problems at nursery and elementary school, and the like - in a comforting, reassuring way. Kids sit and listen to his show as if they were sitting on a rocking chair being held by his soft cadence, repetition, rhymes, stories, games, activities, and music.

Mister Rogers (aka Fred Rogers) has talked about divorce and stepfamilies on his television programs, but in case your child hasn't been there that day, he or she can get somewhat the same comfort from two new books that serve as a jumping off point for the sharing of feelings - Let's Talk About It: Divorce and Let's Talk About It: Stepfamilies.

In both books, the underlying theme is that family is a group of people who care about you (the child) and that a family can grow by helping each other through sad times and into better ones. Each book is meant to be read to the child by a parent in a secure and warm setting, and to form the basis of a talk which will validate the child's emotions, help answer some of his or her questions, and lead to an acceptance of the situation.

In the book on divorce, Mister Rogers echoes the worries of preschoolers: where they will live, who will take care of them. And he tells them that sometimes they might feel drawn between the two parents or guilty about having fun with one when the other is alone. He also reassures them that divorce is not their fault; that divorce is a grownup problem and has nothing to do with them or what they did. And he gives them advice on what might help them feel better when things get tough, like drawing pictures or pounding some clay, going to a special place of their own, or playing with friends.

In the stepfamily book, Rogers touches on some wonderful points and captures the resentments and confusions children feel when a family reconfigures. He talks how "you" might feel when there are too many changes going on, how "you" might have confusing feelings about your parents and stepparents, and how "you" might not like how things are being done in this new family. He emphasizes two key points: Just because you love one person doesn't mean you can't love someone else. And when you get used to this family, it's wonderful to know that you have more people who care about and love you.

The Let's Talk series urges parents to communicate with their children - understanding all the while that communication is a two-way process, with listening being at least as important as talking. The book's jacket says "If children can learn to talk and play about their feelings when they're young, they can take the 'gift' with them through life. It can often make the difference, when strong winds blow, between bending and breaking."

Whether your children are as mesmerized by the television Mister Rogers as my children were is not terribly important, when it comes to the value of these books. Though his "voice" is evident, the acknowledgment of children's fears and hurts during the upheavals of divorce and remarriage is empathetic. It's hard enough to get kids to tell parents what they're feeling. If they do, parents can help them through these difficult times more effectively and more successfully.

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