Skip to main content

This year was the year I revisited a lot of my favorite childhood TV shows. I rewatched the Book of Pooh and a considerable amount of PBS Kids shows like Arthur, Cailou, and Dragon Tales, to name a few. But of all the shows I revisited this year, I found myself regularly returning to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – the show that taught me how to speak the English language. 

As a child of Vietnamese immigrants, I was always encouraged to learn English to the best of my ability. Since my parents were not fluent in the language, we all depended on PBS and other televised programs to casually learn it. Our favorite person to learn from was Fred Rogers. He mattered a lot to me when it came to navigating conversations in English, and he also mattered a lot to us as a Vietnamese-speaking family. 

I eventually acquired English fluency, but my communication skills remain a work in progress. So while I began my Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood bingefest to recall the vestiges of my childhood, I continued watching the show because I admired the way Fred Rogers spoke with and listened to others. I have grown an even richer appreciation for his program as a young adult, and continue to find his approach to precise and earnest communication extremely relevant. Today, rather than learning the English language, I am hoping to learn a different language from him: the Freddish language.

When Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was still being filmed, his staff was so impressed by the way he spoke to children that they created a translation manual called “Let’s Talk About Freddish.” This manual contains nine steps to communicating with young children in a way that “facilitates understanding and comfort” (How to Talk to Kids, According to Fred Rogers). How we communicate with children matters, so today, I’ll be sharing with you these nine steps to talking the Freddish way. Let’s begin:

  • STEP 1: State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible and in terms preschoolers can understand. For example, “it is dangerous to play in the street.”
  • STEP 2: Rephrase in a positive manner, as in “it is good to play where it is safe.”
    • This is affirming for a child to hear, and is necessary to express because playtime is a critical component to early childhood development. 
  • STEP 3: Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust. As in, “ask your parents where it is safe to play.”
  • STEP 4: Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive. In the example, that’d mean getting rid of “ask.” So your statement would look like “Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play”
    • Children desire autonomy. Eliminating commands instills confidence in children as they learn more about themselves, their boundaries, and the importance of following the rules. 
  • STEP 5: Rephrase any element that suggests certainty. That would be “will”: “Your parents can tell you where it is safe to play.”
    • In this example, changing the word “will” to “can” acts as a safeguard to building trusting relationships. Not all parents will tell you where it is safe to play, so this signals to a child that they can seek counsel from someone who does have the answers. 
  • STEP 6: Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children. Not all children know their parents, so: “Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.”
  • STEP 7: “Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice.” Perhaps: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to listen to them.
    • It is helpful for children to understand the bigger picture, or the why, of your statement. 
  • STEP 8: “Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step.” “Good” represents a value judgment, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them.
    • What we want to highlight, instead, is the union of action words with words that convey effort and choice. This will foster a growth mindset in children. 
  • STEP 9: “Rephrase your idea a final time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.” Maybe: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing.
    • This statement also conveys an even bigger picture than the previous: if I am listening, then I am growing.

These steps to learning the Freddish language reveal two truths. The first and most evident one is that how we communicate and what we communicate matters, regardless of the recipient’s age. The second truth is that communication can also be extremely difficult, given that it demands attentiveness to our syntax and linguistic choices. 

In spite of this challenge, we must also recognize that the Freddish language is predicated on another complementary form of communication: listening. The steps to learning the Freddish language are created to “facilitate understanding and comfort.” How can we communicate with children, or others in general, in a way that facilitates understanding and comfort if we are not listening to them and grasping their needs? How we listen matters too, and it matters because listening is not solely a means to be better conversationalists, nor are they ends in themselves. 

Listening aids us in our expression of love. Listening matters because it actively recognizes the dignity of another. Fred Rogers once said: “Listening is certainly a prerequisite of love. One of the most essential ways of saying ‘I love you’ is being a receptive listener.” Listening is love in action, and as the earlier Freddish example suggests, if we are listening, then we are growing, and there is no better way to grow than to grow in love.

This is a photo of me and my sister. I was four at the time this photo was taken and can recall the shame I had experienced because I did not know how to speak English well like my peers. But eventually, I found a friend in my preschool teacher who would ask me questions, pause to listen, and continue waiting in silence until I could articulate my sentences to completion. Like Fred Rogers, she spoke the Freddish language by listening, and helped me to know and understand that I was in fact loved, even when I couldn’t speak as well as I had wanted to.
Thus, how we communicate matters, but how we listen is one of the more important things we can do for one another. It is a language of love and one that surpasses all the languages we’ll ever know. 


  • Mister Rogers Had a Simple Set of Rules for Talking to Children by Maxwell King
  • How to Talk to Kids, According to Mister Rogers:

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.