Thursday, November 05, 2009

Sesame Street and the Commercialization of Childhood

Like just about everyone else under age 45, I grew up watching Sesame Street. It's a testament to how big an influence those Muppets and their human friends have had on society that pretty much every essayist is tackling the topic of Sesame Street's 40th birthday this week (I kind of enjoyed Nancy Gibbs' take in Time, but I welcome links to others!)

Life has changed for many young children since 1969. There are the demographic changes, of course--more have moms who are in the workforce, and more are living with just their moms these days. Sesame Street features a single working mom like Gina in part to be relevant and respectful of children's lives.

But what's more fascinating to me is the changes in early childhood education and, alas, early childhood marketing, over the past four decades. Given that I can remember watching Sesame Street, it strikes me that it used to be aimed at slightly older children. But these days, many 4- and 5-year-olds are in school during times when children's educational programming tends to air. Even many 2- and 3-year-olds are in preschool or daycare. And so while Elmo, the quintessential toddler, was a side character back in the dark ages of the early 1980s when I was watching, these days he's pretty much the star of the show.

As a star, he of course has licensed products based on his likeness everywhere (the Wall Street Journal had an interesting story this morning about the star treatment that toys are getting in Hollywood these days). We have an Elmo doll at our house that Jasper likes to sleep with. Jasper and Sam's diapers both feature Sesame Street characters like Elmo. Yep, even Sam's diapers, sized as they are for children weighing 8-15lbs. The various Tickle-Me-Elmo products have become hot sellers inspiring shopping crazes every Christmas. As toys go, they're pretty wholesome, and Sesame Street is certainly more wholesome than most things on television. You have to admire the earnestness as it's expanded around the globe; a character in the South African version is HIV positive, and versions that air in the Middle East stress the importance of girls learning to read too.

But there's a problem with babies and toddlers watching Sesame Street, not least of which is that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV for kids under age 2. The problem was perhaps best articulated by Susan Gregory Thomas, author of Buy Buy Baby, in this interview with Salon:

"It's complicated for an infant or toddler to process television. When they are put in front of the television, the only thing they seem to be getting out of it in a verifiable way is character recognition. That's why you see babies and toddlers so thrilled when they're at the supermarket and they recognize Elmo. ... The problem is that the great social values that Elmo and the characters on Sesame Street teach are lost on children under the age of 3. They get solely a flat, one-dimensional character recognition. And the only other times that children are going to encounter the character are when a company is trying to sell the kid something. You don't see Elmo running around your park. You see Elmo when he's in diapers, when he's on juice boxes, when he's on Band-Aids and when he's on toothbrushes."

So Sesame Street has, alas, become part of the craze of marketing toward very young children. While I love the show and think it does a lot of good, I'm wishing it a happy birthday with a caveat. I know the Children's Television Workshop can't truly control how parents let their children interact with television. But if pediatricians say that kids under age 2 aren't supposed to be watching television at all, why is Elmo's face on newborn diapers? Something is not computing between the stated aim of Sesame Street to teach older children their letters and numbers and civility and citizenship and the reality of its marketing. There is a lot to be said for educational television. But there is probably more to be said for watching as little television as possible.


Kevin said...

The pictures on newborn diapers aren't for the kids, they're for the parents. I guess the marketers think that new moms find Elmo appealing.

I'm fairly ignorant about Sesame Street, having grown up before it and not having a TV since.

Miss E said...

Thoughtful post!

The Princess Mom said...

While this may be true of neurotypical children, I disagree that gifted toddlers only get a one dimensional "Hey, that's Elmo!" experience from Sesame Street. My children learned letters, numbers and songs from Sesame Street

J. said...

I'm with Laura on this one. Even if gifted kids are well advanced, I still don't see the point of such early tv viewing. While certainly respecting different points of view.

There are just so many ways to educate a bright eager alert young child. I hate to say this, but you don't really need Sesame Street to do that.

Anonymous said...

J., the whole point of Sesame Street in the beginning was to provide some fun education for kids who were *not* getting it from concerned parents at home--not that the parents were necessarily unconcerned, just that they didn't have the same resources middle-class parents do. There was a reason Sesame Street was urban and colorful. It was designed to give poor kids some of what wealthier ones were getting from at-home moms and private kindergartens.

Because it was an excellent program, middle-class kids like me grew up watching it, too. And I continued to watch it occasionally long after I knew my letters and numbers.

I hadn't thought of Elmo as being aimed at the younger children watching now. I agree that he changes the dynamic too much. Rather than designing TV for toddlers, they should reschedule Sesame Street for when the kindergarteners it's aimed for are home.

I grew up pre-Elmo. Grover and Kermit were my favorites. I started watching again when I was babysitting in the 1980's, and was surprized and disappointed that everybody knew Snuffalupagus. He began as Big Bird's very shy friend; everyone else thought he was imaginary. I guess the joke just got old after a while.


Anonymous said...

My son has never cared much for tv, but as a young baby (9 months) we have him on video demanding to watch Sesame Street- he was spelling words he learned on there around age 20 months.