Sesame Street has always been the favorite educational television show for many children and adults alike. For generations, it has been at the forefront of all PBS shows. Recently, however, Sesame Street made the big move to HBO–the network not usually known for family friendly shows. I didn’t understand the transition at first. I thought they were trying to get fancy, but in the midst of financial struggles, Sesame Street was forced to leave it’s PBS host for almost 50 years. With this move to a new home also came the introduction of new characters.
Sesame Street has always had its traditional characters: Elmo, Oscar The Grouch, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, and Grover. But recently, they have added a few more. Julia wears a magenta shirt with bright green pants to match her eyes. Julia, their first autistic character on the show, is introduced to everyone as she colors with Elmo. Sesame Street has been applauded for incorporating a character with autism and increasing awareness of intellectual disabilities. In fact, some wonder why it took this long.
I wonder if people would react similarly to Alex, a character whose dad is incarcerated. He was originally introduced in 2013, but has recently returned to the Street. When discussing a school project with two other characters, they suggest getting help from their dads. The others don’t understand when Alex gets upset and is reluctant to share his feelings, but apart from teaching about expressing emotions, Sesame Street does not delve deeper into the incarceration. The educational program leaves imprisonment at “breaking an adult rule.”
I have never thought about the significance of child television programming until I learned about Alex. In its hands lies the responsibility to shape the thoughts and opinions of children in our society. All I can remember from the PBS shows I grew up with was the math I learned from Cyberchase, the amazing wildlife I learned from Zaboomafoo, and the smiling sun from Teletubbies. Never would I imagine being exposed to the real world “adult” problems at the age when I’d still have imaginary friends.
Originally, I didn’t agree with Sesame Street’s idea to expose children to incarceration at such a young age. But looking at the world we live in today–a world in which the president will speak of sexual assault in a lighthearted manner, a world in which mass shootings can occur in elementary schools–children have no choice but to be exposed to unfortunate realities. It is happening at an younger and younger age. In our society today, the innocence of childhood can only be maintained for so long.
If Sesame Street will talk about this issue, I guess it is for the best that it focuses on the feelings and not the logistics of imprisonment. It will take time for children to understand the complexities of incarceration, especially when nowadays, going to jail isn’t necessarily for something as simple as “breaking an adult rule.”
But they are just children. This can wait.