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'Sesame Street' On Divorce: How It Took 20 Years to Get It Right

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Dec 20, 2012 | 12:01pm EST

Sesame Street Divorce

Sesame Street has never just been about its pop culture spoofs. Or the incredible roster of celebrity guests it features every season. Or even its beloved furry Muppets. All of those are key reasons for the series’ incredible endurance since its launch 43 years ago. But some of Sesame Street’s most memorable moments have been those which address painful topics that young children may face. Who can ever forget the show’s exploration of grief in the aftermath of Mr. Hooper’s (Will Lee) death in 1983? Or the special that showed Big Bird and the rest of the Sesame Street gang preparing for a hurricane? “It’s all about helping kids become as resilient as possible,” says Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, Senior Vice President for Outreach and Educational Practices at Sesame Workshop. “Not only at the moment they’re watching, but for when they get older and meet newer and bigger challenges.” There’s one topic, however, that up until now the show has never explored: Divorce. As part of a new outreach initiative targeted directly to children of parents whose marriages have come to an end, Sesame Workshop has unveiled a new online special called Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce.

In the video, available online now, sparkly fairy Abby Cadabby shows Gordon (Roscoe Orman) that she lives in two houses because her parents are divorced. What’s unique about this presentation of life after divorce is just how normal it is. “Abby talks about how her situation is different,” Dr. Betancourt says. “But the message also is that she’s not alone, and she knows she’s not the cause of the divorce. It’s a grown-up problem. She’s still loved, and the questions she’s asking are perfectly okay. It’s her life, and it’s common and ordinary.”

That’s a world of difference from Sesame Street’s first attempt at tackling the subject 20 years ago. In 1992, the show wanted to acknowledge the rising rate of failed marriages, and the children experiencing their parents’ divorce, by building a segment around Snuffleupagus. The woolly mammoth was upset because his father had moved out of the family cave. Snuffy was crying and terribly distraught. “Because that segment wasn’t targeted, because it wasn’t aimed directly at kids who themselves are experiencing divorce, but rather was intended for broadcast on the Sesame Street show itself, we found in testing it that it actually frightened kids who weren’t experiencing divorce," Betancourt says. "They were worried it could happen to them.”

That’s why the new outreach initiative is not airing on Sesame Street itself. And also why, unlike Snuffy’s more anxious reaction, Abby Cadabby is focusing not on the pain of her parents’ initial split (though she does acknowledge she was sad at the time), but how normal life can be afterward. Sesame Workshop arrived at this different approach after three years of development on the project, including nine months alone of research involving a panel of advisers who provide expertise in child development and mental health. “We then created prototypes or samples of these materials and tested them with families who are facing these challenges,” Betancourt says. “We make sure we hear the voices of children, as well as the needs of the important adults in their lives on the types of questions they hear from their kids that they often don’t know how to respond to.” And since children learn best when interacting with their parents, Sesame Workshop has also developed specific materials for grown-ups to complement their kid-targeted divorce-related content, including a caregiver guide, an app, and even a storybook that uses reading as a moment of bonding between parents and kids.

But why now? Why did it take 20 years since Snuffy’s segment was shelved to address a topic that so many kids have experienced. In part, that’s because of Sesame Workshop’s increased outreach involvement with military families. The divorce initiative was, in a sense, a natural outgrowth of other programs they’d been developing to address the very hard transitions that children in military families may be facing, like deployment and the separation that comes when a parent is called up, and moving, when kids have to adjust to a new school and new friends. Also, grief. Next year, they’re preparing an initiative about children dealing with the incarceration of a parent. All this proves that even 43 years after its launch, Sesame Street still has new ground to cover and new minds to reach.

Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt

[Photo Credit: PBS]

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