There's a Scientific Reason Why Toddlers Are So Damn Obsessed With Elmo


SesameStreet/Instagram

Give a toddler an iPad, and chances are he or she will plead, poke, and give you The Lip until Elmo appears on the screen. Sure, your kids might laugh when Big Bird bumps into something, or jump up and get their groove on when Count starts singing about the number of the day. But seeing that big ball of red fur on screen turns anyone under the age of 4 into the equivalent of a tween at a One Direction concert. What is it about Elmo that makes him the MVP of the Sesame Street crew? We asked some experts to clue us in as to why our toddlers are so obsessed with this tiny red monster.

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The magic behind Elmo starts with something simple: the color of his fur. It turns out there's a really good reason why Elmo's always running around without his pants on, and it's not just because he's a stubborn preschooler who refuses to get dressed. Red is the very first color your baby can see, coming into focus usually around one week after birth. Seeing as he's the only red monster on Sesame Street (in fact, we can't think of any other kids' character that rocks the red quite like Elmo), it makes sense that babies and toddlers would naturally gravitate toward his red, fuzzy form. 

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But looks aren't everything. Shanna Donhauser, a child and family therapist and founder of The Happy Nest, believes another part of Elmo's appeal is that he displays personality traits our children are rewarded for at home -- and therefore are attracted to -- over, say, Oscar the Grouch.

"Elmo is typically bright in personality, and always kind," she notes. "Children are usually drawn to these characters because they reflect the positive feelings they know personally and the characteristics (like kindness) they appreciate."

When your toddlers declare Elmo as their favorite, what they're really saying is that they're listening to you. Your children's preference for Elmo is a sign that all your reminders about saying "Please" and "Thank you" are actually sinking in, even if it didn't feel that way when they slurped their way through lunch.

Although Elmo's high-pitched squeaking might sound like nails on a chalkboard to us, the way he talks is actually really similar to a toddler, which is a third explanation for why they're so wild about him. Our kids see themselves in that big red ball of fur. "He speaks like a child does, and asks questions that a child might ask," explains LCSW Kaleigh Boysen. "His questions and attempts to understand mimic a young child's thought process. His voice is also higher pitched, making him sound more childlike and easier for small children to hear."

One of the main reasons why our kids are crazy for Elmo? Because he's just as wild about them as they are about him. "He speaks directly to children in many scenes," Boysen notes. When actors do this in an adult series, we call it breaking the fourth wall. When Elmo does it, our children see it as a sign that their favorite character really knows them, and is a close, personal friend. Toddlers are attention seekers -- think about how many times they'll toss a sippy cup just to get a reaction out of you. By talking directly to them, Elmo gives them the one-on-one attention they crave, and they adore him for it.




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But even more importantly, says Dr. Lauren Gardner, administrative director of the Autism Center at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, our children can't get enough of Elmo because he reminds them of another one of their favorite people -- you. "His speech style is 'mother-ese,'" she explains. "The high-pitched voice, dragged-out vowel sounds, and exaggerated inflection is how most children are spoken to by caregivers in our culture." 

So the next time your little ones are begging for a hit of red fur, don't fight it -- embrace it. Their love for Elmo is a way of expressing their own confidence, and their love for you.

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