To Bring Back 'Once Upon a Time'

The following story was published in the November 1976 issue of Pitt Magazine.

By Fred Rogers

Once upon a time, adults could pass their stories on to their children only by actually telling those stories themselves. Each storyteller—in fact, each parent—had his or her way of telling a story; so, even though the ingredients of stories were similar, each family could have had a different rendering, according to its traditions. Some stories would be told more than others in certain homes. Some would be omitted altogether—according to the family traditions. The parents’ voices were the means by which the early literature of childhood was transmitted to children.

With the invention of the printing press, certain stories were published in book form, sometimes with pictures. As families began to read those books and show the pictures to their children, some of the unique renderings became more standardized. Instead of recounting the story to suit family traditions, the parents’ only job was to read it. (Of course, there was still some element of choice in what childhood literature parents elected to pass on to their own children.)

With the advent of radio, mass storytelling began. This is the first instance in which the parents’ voice is absent. Unless parents and children listen to radio stories together, and the parents comment on them (thereby adding their interpretation to the stories), there is no difference in a radio story broadcast to one home or another. Of course, each child might have a unique mental image of the characters and places in the radio stories.

Now television has added even the picture to the voice, so that what is seen as well as heard is standardized. All homes see and hear the same stories, some of which are brought to children without their parents’ knowledge, some of which are far from the traditions those parents would care to offer their children.

Like all technological advances, the developments of printed and electronic storytelling can promote family integration or disintegration.

“Hasn’t television gone too far toward disintegration?” people ask.

Yes, if we don’t take the next step: to bring television back to be used uniquely by each family.

Before long (5 or 10 years) the technology of television should be such that video cassettes or video discs will be available for families to choose and use according to their own traditions. Just as we parents are now able to buy or borrow records and audio cassettes for our children, so will we be able to buy tapes and records that include sound and picture—things we can “put on our own television sets,” things we can feel comfortable in sharing with them. Better still, there should also come the day when a central “library” of programs (all programs that have even been produced) will be available for people to dial up, to see and hear right from their homes. The family will be involved in the choice. This seems to me to be one of the true functions of libraries of any kind: to encourage families to use the resources of mass communications in the comfortable development of who we are. This is one reason I am glad that Family Communications can offer one copy of everything we produce in videotape, record and print to the Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences. Not only can these materials be used in the research of one phase of 20th-century childhood literature; they may also be a beginning in a renewed emphasis of family use of materials—at the discretion of the parents.

For example, we are now embarked on a project entitled LET’S TALK ABOUT IT, in which we will develop materials for families to use in times of stress: hospitalization, first day of school, visit to the dentist, moving, divorce, death—anything which is potentially frightening for families and which families begin to use such resources as the LET’S TALK ABOUT IT materials, they will come to think of the technology of television as something they can use in the service of their own growth—not as something some source from the outside uses to superimpose a tradition that may be unsuited to them and one which they don’t want.

Anything we can do to regain that once-upon-a-time way of parents’ telling their stories to their children (telling their children what’s meaningful to them) and still employ the useful technology that has been developed, seems to me to be of great importance.

May the resources be made easily available, and young parents to be able to grow in the confidence of what they feel good about passing on to their children.