Viewpoint: Adults Read Too Much Into “Sesame Street”

Grownups are worried about the latest Elmo scandal, but it may be time to stop imbuing this show with so much significance

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Andrew H. Walker / Getty Images

Muppets attend the Sesame Street Workshop 10th Annual Benefit Gala at Cipriani 42nd Street on May 30, 2012 in New York City

Many adults who have been tracking the story about Elmo-creator Kevin Clash’s departure from Sesame Street might be surprised to learn that they’re part of the show’s target audience. As the Sesame Workshop explained last year, in response to parental outcry over an apparently risqué Katy Perry segment recorded with Elmo (but not aired), “Sesame Street has always been written on two levels…We use parodies and celebrity segments to interest adults in the show because we know that a child learns best when co-viewing with a parent or caregiver.”

It’s hard to argue against parent-child bonding, even in TV-watching. And it’s understandable that parents feel protective of the show and want to track every real or imagined controversy. The nostalgia factor is high, for one thing, with more than 77 million American adults having watched the series as children. Sesame Street’s unique content – a blend of pre-academic skills, social advocacy, and multicultural harmony – also reinforces parents’ sense that they are raising good kids and doing their best for them.

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But parental concern about the puppeteer’s sex life obscures a different set of issues. First, it’s problematic when adults over-identify with children’s entertainment. When the launch of a new character is a major news event (as when ABC News selected Abby Cadabby as Person of the Week) and puppet characters have their own publicity machines, it’s easy to forget about the real target audience: preschoolers, most of whom are watching the show not on two levels, as the Workshop suggests, but on one level, and often alone.

Anxious speculation about the Elmo brand’s post-scandal prospects reflects an adult’s perspective on the puppet character, not a young child’s, as one Wall Street Journal blogger sheepishly admitted when she confessed to confiscating an Elmo toy from the diaper bag to avoid intrusive thoughts while playing with her son. But parents who are suddenly finding it awkward to make good on Santa’s Christmas promise of an Elmo doll are really missing the point. The simple truth is that most three year-olds don’t know or care who Kevin Clash is, nor should they. It’s the characters, not the adults animating them, that seem truly real to a young child. And that’s important because it’s through that social relationship with Elmo that they learn basic skills like how to cough without spreading germs, how to tell an adult when they have to go to the bathroom, and other developmentally appropriate topics. In fact, a recent study from Georgetown University found that toddlers performed a sequencing task better when Elmo demonstrated it than an unfamiliar puppet.

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In fact, it’s unclear how much these very small children can make sense of Sesame Street’s laudable efforts at social awareness, such as the recent introduction of a “food insecure” muppet named Lily, to represent the diversity of American childhood. Before Lily made her debut last year, producers reportedly worked carefully to authenticate Lily’s speech, dress, and physical mannerisms, such as a tendency to look down at her feet rather than into people’s eyes when she spoke. This sensitivity sounds great, of course, but it also sounds a little like adults who aren’t walking in the shoes of a two or three-year old watching the show without an adult to explain why the pink muppet girl is too ashamed of her food insecurity to make eye contact. (Ironically, the ability to ‘walk in another person’s shoes’ – i.e. to assume the perspective of another person – is an essential Kindergarten readiness skill even more important, some argue, than the letter and number sense at the center of the Sesame Street curriculum.) Perhaps Lily might inspire a parent-child conversation about hunger, but in reality, most parents use screen time as a safe space for their kids so they can do something else.

At the end of the day, Sesame Street is still a TV show, and even the best television programming is sub-optimal for very young children. While the American Academy of Pediatricians and other experts recommend no screen time at all before age two, 95% of American toddlers had watched Sesame Street before they reached its intended target age of three to five. And at any age, TV is not a panacea for poor parenting, or a lack of quality preschool education, or social injustice, or anything else.

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Adults have a lot of hopes and dreams tied up in Sesame Street, but it may be time to stop imbuing the show with so much significance. When we treat TV puppet characters like celebrities, with their own media strategies and public disgraces, we can lose sight of what’s so special about Sesame Street in the first place: It’s for young kids.