Sesame Workshop has introduced a resource for children of incarcerated parents. The documentary-style series and accompanying activities are available on the organization’s website for caregivers and service providers to help children of incarcerated parents cope with the stigma and confusion they face.
Sesame Workshop, formerly called “The Children’s Television Workshop” was founded with the intention of harnessing the entertainment power of television and finding research-based ways to help children learn. Shortly thereafter, Sesame Workshop expanded its goals and began to include lessons about social and emotional well-being. Since its inception, it operated with an eye that espoused equality, integrating characters of all races, classes and genders both on air and on the production team. The team never shied away from tough topics and real-life struggles, often based on the experiences of its writers, actors and founders. For instance, when original cast member Mr. Hooper (Will Lee) died of a heart attack, the writers chose to deal with his death directly, teaching children that death is normal and while things won’t be the same without him, “we still have our memories.”
This year, Sesame Workshop introduced the “Little Children, Big Challenges” series, which is targeted at children faced with other overwhelming and difficult situations. One tool kit in the series is “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration,” which includes a video library with Muppets and humans talking about their experiences and sharing their “big feelings.” Alex, the series’ main character, is an orange Muppet with blue hair, allowing him to appeal to children of all races and social classes. He defies categories and his
lessons supersede the barriers they create, which could keep particular groups of children from identifying with and benefiting from him. Part of Sesame Street’s value comes from the universal appeal of its puppets. Most of the Muppets, including Elmo and Big Bird, are children themselves. Kids identify with them and thus readily accept the lessons that they learn vicariously through these characters. And “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration” represents a whole group of children who can now learn vicariously through characters that have been mostly excluded from children’s media.
The tool kit comes at a time when a rising number of children in the United States are living with the reality of an incarcerated parent. The Pew Research Center reports that in 2010, 1-in-28 American children had a parent in prison, up from 1-in-125 in the late 1980s. The tool kit has mostly been met with praise.
Patricia Connelly, an adjunct lecturer at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh and a mother, says that she is happy to see Sesame Street bringing difficult topics out into the open:
“I explained it much like Sesame has Alex explain his father’s situation: Her father made an adult mistake and he has to spend time there–like a time out–to account for that mistake. I don’t think we are doing children any favors by sweeping these issues under the rug, especially when the prison system disproportionately affects low income communities and communities of color.”
Colleen Williams, a teacher with the New York State Department of Corrections and a mother of two, says that she also believes the tool kit can stimulate conversations that help children understand incarceration:
“I think that would be wonderful for kids with parents in prison. They rarely see kids that they can relate to that way on TV. In fact, I have never seen it. I don’t know why it is so taboo. I think that TV educates best when it reflects kids’ realities. Why not include those kids who have a parent in prison?”
Incarceration isn’t the only “taboo” subject tackled by Sesame Workshop. In recent years there has been a growing discussion about the relationship between Bert and Ernie, two male Muppets who live together and engage in many of the same activities that a couple might. Many have speculated that these characters were created to normalize same-sex relationships. Speculation was heightened this week when the cover of The New Yorker featured Bert and Ernie cuddling in front of a television that displayed an image of the Supreme Court. Could Bert and Ernie be ready to come out? Will Sesame Street feature a same-sex marriage? It may not be long before we see the show broach this subject.
Unfortunately, Sesame Workshop also announced on Wednesday that it would soon lay off 10 percent of its workforce after it had already cut 20 percent of its staff in 2009. As Sesame Workshop expands into new territory, we can only hope that it will continue to have access to the resources and social support that have thus far allowed it to uphold and instill values of tolerance and equality in children around the world.