No Children's Show Wanted to Reach Out to Kids With Parents In Jail — But Sesame Street Just Did


Sesame Street is one of the most widely celebrated and enjoyed children's shows in the history of television. Colorful muppets and a recognizable cast of characters introduce children to fundamental skills from counting to motor functions. The show has provided resources and videos addressing relevant topics to child development, everything from doctors visits and nature to grief and disaster preparedness. Now, the folks behind Sesame Street at the non-profit Sesame Workshop are expanding their tool kits to assist with a new challenge faced by children in the United States, adding "Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration."

Sesame Street has tackled issues affecting subsets of American children before, such as muppets whose parents are divorced or a child of a service member whose parent is being deployed. The various kits they have created over the years provide educational and age-relevant tips for families and caregivers with small children. In this case, the kit provides information on how to help children coping with a parent who is incarcerated. The reception of the toolkit has been predictably mixed. Carol F. Burton, Executive Director of Centerforce, a non-profit dedicated to supporting individuals and families impacted by incarceration, reacted with "excitement and joy" to see a group like the Sesame Workshop taking on an issue that impacts some 2.7 million children. Others have lamented the need for such materials, including Mike Riggs at Reason last week who summed up his article by congratulating America for "making it almost normal to have a parent or prison in jail."

The reality is, yes, the fact we have to come up with mechanisms to help America's children cope with a parent who has broken laws in the magnitude that a widely-known venue such as Sesame Street suggests is, frankly, heartbreaking. While few studies appear to exist that describe the extent of the problem, the Bureau of Justice Statistics laid out that in 2007, 52% of state inmates and 63% of federal inmates reported having minor children, accounting for roughly 2.3% of the U.S. resident population under 18. Put that a bit more in perspective and recognize that we are dealing with more kids who have an incarcerated parent than kids who have a parent deployed in the military. 

We can all agree that this is awful for our society. I'm sure we all also believe in supporting those children who are coping with the reality that their mother or father has broken the law and will not be a part of their daily life in the same way as before. Facing something like that at a young age raises numerous complex emotions for a child. We should applaud Sesame Street for taking on this role and becoming a resource for a demographic that needs a great deal of reassurance, understanding, and support. Inevitably, however, I fear there will be an outcry against sharing such charged information with kids.

This isn't the first time the famed children's show has taken on a particularly taboo subject. In 2002, Sesame Street introduced an HIV-positive muppet to it's South African affiliate which caused an immediate backlash in the U.S., including from federal lawmakers, who questioned the wisdom of "promoting" such a character to children. The sympathy for children of incarcerated parents may be similarly undermined given the charged nature of why the child has been exposed to the trauma in the first place. 

Yet that is precisely where a group such as the Sesame Street and Sesame Workshop can thrive. The show may not always be the most popular show, but the longevity among many of the top shows and the influence created by its rich history is palpable. They just won another six Emmy's and they have over 100, including becoming a recipient of the Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009 — not to mention eight Grammy's. The show has twenty international editions and broadcasts in 120 countries, making it the most widely watched children's show in the world. And who wasn't reminded of Big Bird in 2012 during the Presidential campaign? The show is uniquely positioned to reach audiences, as it has for decades, with age-appropriate and useful information for caregivers and parents. This situation is no different.

We as a society need to take every opportunity to help children in coping with a parent who is missing from them, regardless of the reason. A stigma on talking about the subject keeps many children and families from accessing adequate resources to assist them in understanding and coming to terms with their changing life. In many cases, families say nothing about the absence of the parent — and some claim the parent is in the hospital or abroad, just to avoid having to talk about their situation. This means that young children, who likely struggle to understand the reason their parent is gone, are not having the right conversations. Coming from a muppet character, the subject becomes more relatable and safer for children, and coming from the Sesame Workshop, parents and caregivers can rely on information that has been thoroughly researched and developed to offer an interactive environment for a child to relate to. 

Bravo to the Sesame Workshop for recognizing a need and stepping in to fill it.