Sesame Street has always tried to be relatable to kids from all walks of life, every race and ethnicity, comfortable or poor, differently-abled. Now the show is breaking ground again with a new character, Alex. Sesame Street is talking about parents in prison. Through Alex, kids learn what incarceration means -- one of the saddest vocabulary words we've ever seen on the show.
Parents in prison -- on Sesame Street? It's not as narrow an issue as you'd think. Just 12 years ago, 562,000 children under 18 had a parent in prison. That number has since grown by 60 percent: Now about 1.5 million American kids have a parent in federal prison. That's 1 in every 28 U.S. children. It's not Sesame Street's job to fix that problem, but they do feel responsible for helping children deal with it.
The episode deals with Alex's "big feelings" about his father's absence and incarceration. An adult character on the show, Sophia, is able to guide Alex and his friends through a conversation because she also had a parent in prison as a child. You'll see from the clip, Alex's story is heartbreaking. At first he can't even bring himself to tell his friends why he can't build a toy car with his dad because he's too ashamed and sad.
I think it should be incredibly helpful for kids to watch the episode. There's also a tool kit on Sesame Street's website, with clips from the show, activities, and tips for service providers and caregivers. The online tool kit is clearly more for adults helping kids than for kids themselves.
I think Sesame Street does a great job of keeping the focus on kids and their feelings. They avoid getting into politics, or why parents end up in prison, or any ethical or moral issues. Very young kids don't really need that at this point in their lives -- they just need to find the words to express how they feel, and they need a safe and secure place to do that.
It's depressing that we have so many kids with parents in prison that Children's Television Workshop actually felt like they needed to address that issue on the show. There's nothing kids can do about that, though. I'm glad at least Sesame is helping children cope.
Are you surprised that Sesame Street is addressing this topic on its show?
Image via Sesame Street in Communities/YouTube