TORONTO – He has a head of blue hair, green nose and a wide smile. This is Alex and he’s the first Muppet on Sesame Street with a parent behind bars.
While his friends make plans to race toy cars with their dads, Alex shies away.
“This talk about my dad and where he is makes me really sad,” he tells his friends.
“I just miss him so much. I usually don’t want people to know about my dad,” he said.
Sesame Street may be about learning the alphabet and how to count, but a separate arm of the storied company also deals with touchy issues young kids may be dealing with: divorce, parents going away on military deployments and even poverty.
This part of the Sesame Street is called the Sesame Workshop – here, a group of producers work with experts in their various fields of education and mental health to put together these segments.
And coming from Elmo, Cookie Monster and their friends, this guidance is a huge opportunity to reach out to kids, Lynn Chwatsky told Global News. She oversees the overall project.
“It is a pretty powerful message coming from these characters they adore,” she said.
“So few people realize that we are so much more than just the TV show. The show is incredible, but the truth is that this work is so targeted and really focuses on some tough issues in children’s lives. We have a whole international arm of this organization,” she explained.
These sensitive segments aren’t aired on the popular show, but they’re paired with tool kits and awareness campaigns that are then doled out to teachers, social workers and organizations across North America.
The latest Sesame Workshop program will even make its way into the hands of officials working in prisons. It’s called “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration.”
The topic is a timely one: the number of kids with an incarcerated parent has increased by nearly 80 per cent in the past 20 years. In the U.S., nearly 2.7 million children have a parent in state or federal prison.
Statistics Canada told Global News it does not keep track of incarcerated parents. The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies says that it’s noticed a trend of young women being arrested and incarcerated.
“Many of these women have young children, from which they will be separated,” the organization says.
So far, the incarceration topic has garnered plenty of attention from the media, and from some critics.
The Oakland Press, for example, refers to angry sentiments from some experts – it’s not aimed at Sesame Street, but at the U.S. government for incarcerating so many people to the point where materials like this toolkit for families are necessary.
Meanwhile, Alex Jones at Infowars.com, called the project a “propaganda program designed to help children accept the fact that daddy is in jail.” He alleges that it desensitizes kids to a growing problem in America.
Chwatsky says the goal of the program is to make sure kids understand that it wasn’t their fault. Too often, children blame themselves for their parents’ divorce, or even to explain why their mom or dad went away.
© 2013 Shaw Media