After over 40 years on the air, the gang at Sesame Street is finally ready to talk about that harsh reality that touches 50 percent of marriages in this country: d-i-v-o-r-c-e.
First, a note: Although it might make sense to do so, I’m not going to use this space to write about the loss experienced by Newtown, Connecticut. I just can’t add anything especially helpful to the conversation—not yet, anyway. All I can say is that I feel how most of you probably feel: angry, scared, and heartbroken.
I pitched the idea of reviewing Sesame Street’s “Little Children, Big Challenges” a few days before the horrific events of December 14th took place. While today’s column focuses specifically on their new resources for families experiencing divorce, I encourage you to look through the rest of the website (and keep an eye on their Twitter) should you find yourself at a loss as to how to explain this tragedy to your kids. They don’t specifically address what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary, but it’ll give you a place to start.
And then go hug your babies tight.
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Since its first episode aired in 1969, Sesame Street has taught children much more than their ABCs and 123s. Those Muppets and their human neighbors regularly tackle serious topics like natural disasters, job loss, and even death (we miss you, Mr. Hooper1). However, it’s taken the folks at the Sesame Workshop over 40 years to address a reality faced by millions of American families: divorce.
At first glance, it seems a bit odd that they waited so long, no? After all in the United States, 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. Consequently divorce plays a significant part in the life stories of millions of children (current and former) in this country–myself2 included and, probably, many of you as well. It’s so very sad yet so very common.
But it’s also really, really hard to talk to kids about—at least in a way that’s both honest and constructive. What’s more, all divorces—like all families—are different. Finding a meaningful way to cover all the bases is a mighty task, and not one to be taken lightly.
And to its credit, Sesame Workshop doesn’t. In fact, the powers-that-be at Sesame Street take the task of talking to preschoolers about parental separation so seriously that in 1992 they shelved an already-filmed episode unofficially titled Snuffy’s Parents Get Divorced. This episode showed Snuffy and his sister Alice in the thick of their parents’ separation—and left preschoolers in preliminary screenings struggling with questions like:
“When my parents fight, does that mean they’re getting a divorce?”
“Do Snuffy’s parents still love him?”
“Are my parents going to get divorced?”
So basically the exact anxieties the writers of the episode were hoping to assuage by addressing the issue in the first place.
Cut to 20 years later, and Sesame Street is ready to give it another go—but this time with a very different approach. Instead of a scared Snuffy trying to understand what’s happening to his family, we hear from Abby Cadabby, that spunky, sparkly pink fairy all of our little ones know and love. As it turns out, Abby’s parents are divorced; and although it makes her sad sometimes, she’s doing just fine.
Through a series of short videos (available online only3 and adding up to around 15 minutes total), we get to learn about Abby’s life as the child of divorced parents. Gordon (played by long-time Sesame Street cast member Roscoe Orman) offers some grown-up guidance throughout the segments as he helps Abby explain her family’s situation to her friends—and he even offers her a shoulder to cry on when she’s not sure what to do with some “big” feelings she’s having, even after the initial sting of her parents’ separation wears off.
The videos premiered on sesamestreet.org last week as part of Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce, a multimedia online toolkit specifically designed to help young children cope with the complicated emotions that accompany parental separation. Rich in quantity and quality, the toolkit provides useful and remarkably sensitive resources that help parents talk with their kids about divorce—not just to them. True to Sesame Street form, each component of this kit manages to communicate honestly with children about a very sensitive topic, but does so in a way that simultaneously comforts and empowers. And, most importantly, they all echo the same three-part message that all children of divorce need to hear: 1) It isn’t your fault. 2) Your feelings are valid. 3) Mom and Dad will always love you.4
In addition to helpful (and practical) tips for parents, caregivers, and extended family and friends, you can also access several kid-specific activities, coloring sheets, even music videos (featuring songs like “Somebody Cares About Me” and “Big Feelings”), all geared towards helping your little ones label and express their emotions during such a tough time. And be sure to check out the full-color storybook Two-hug Day. As a child of divorce, I feel I can say with some authority that it is–well it’s basically perfect. Like the videos that follow Abby’s story and the resources that will help your kids process their own, the subject matter is handled very matter-of-factly, very sweetly…very Sesame Streetly–which is a good thing in my book.
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Visit sesamestreet.org and click “Topics & Activities” to locate the Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce toolkit. And for more on the process (and people) that brought us these resources, check out this video produced by Tumblr Storyboard in partnership with Time.
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- If you can get through that clip without tearing up, your heart is made of stone. Wait, I take that back. You have no heart. ↩
- I was 12. The fact that it was almost 20 years ago astounds me. ↩
- Some argue that keeping the episode off of the show’s regular broadcast is a cop-out; if divorce is so common, why keep it “hush-hush”? I get where they’re coming from, but because the topic of divorce could potentially rock a kid’s world, I think an online format better frames the content as something for parents and kids to watch and work through together. I’d love to hear what you think about that though. ↩
- But let’s be honest, we all need to hear those things. ↩