catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 1, Num 2 :: 2002.09.27 — 2002.10.10


Potholes on Sesame Street

Sesame Street's main problem is that it is television

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 20, 1986 issue of The Banner magazine.

Big Bird should become an endangered species and Sesame Street should be permanently detoured.

Why pick on Sesame Street? Should it be singled out as the worst of a bad lot? Probably yes. This world-famous program has been at the forefront of children’s television and has a long history of strong resources and technical finesse. From its earliest days, Sesame Street has been touted as stimulating verbal skills, promoting reading, developing social insights, and building intellectual curiosity. In fact, when Sesame Street was first aired, I publicly praised it for its cleverness with pre-reading skills. (Remember those little dots running left to right and up to down, like the reading of a page?) And wasn’t it kind of cute back in 1972 when my four-year-old daughter, with no parental involvement or even their knowledge, taught herself to read simply by “catching” the clever phonics on Sesame Street?

But all this was before I realized that the main thing Sesame Street teaches is not social skills or reading or language awareness or curiosity. Actually, there’s only one thing it teaches how to do well: how to watch TV. And I can’t think of a better way to kill children’s creativity or social skills or ruin their sense of wonder than to turn them into faithful watchers of the tube. Yes, Sesame Street is the entrance to a broad road that leads to life-long dullness and passivity.

Objections and Problems

My first objection to the program is that merely watching it passively does nothing for a child’s social or intellectual stimulation. How much better would it be for a child to actually learn by doing things, touching things, manipulating stuff. If a youngster is to gain basic skills in communicating and functioning as a social being, he or she can only learn them by doing, not by sitting passively in front of the tube, which requires no verbal or social participation whatsoever.

My second objection is that Sesame Street insidiously teaches short attention. The quick-changing format (ever so clever technically), moving from one idea to another every few minutes, actually boomerangs. The program’s long-range goals are to stimulate a child’s creativity, sociability, and desire to read. But the fast, quick-change pace, with its over-stimulation, actually cancels any hope for fostering in a child these long-range goals. Imagination, creativity, sociability, reading, all these good things need time, leisure, and interaction with other living human beings. These cannot be fostered by a passive child gazing into a glaring tube, wondering what quick new turn the “street” will take next to grab his or her attention.

A third problem I have with Sesame Street is that its fast-paced format teaches to a young child that instant gratification is possible. It goes from one clever or high-powered picture to another. And as it jumps from one activity to another, it creates in the young viewer, I believe, a subtle demand for instant gratification: entertain me right now! Amuse me this moment! Spare me from boredom this instant! Please me right now, or I’ll switch channels!

A fourth problem I see is Sesame Street’s technical cleverness. With enough budget and enough technical expertise, the producers can do some very clever and slick things. But real life isn’t quick shift, clever change, or full of neat tricks. So once youngsters are hooked on that level of glitter and cleverness, how can Sunday school crayons or mere flannelgraph compete? How can a first grade teacher, even if she stands on her head, ever compete with Sesame Street’s attention grabbing gimmicks?

Most of us who have taught school for several years agree that the current “flavor” of students is not that of the long-gone rebellion of the 1960s, but the apathy and boredom of the 1980s (“I’m bored! School is so booooorrring!”). I submit that there may be some connection between the clever slickness of yesterday’s Sesame Street and today’s ennui. This is real life, kids, not Sesame Street! And might it be even too farfetched or absurd to suggest that at least a bit of the escape-to-booze-or-drugs-because-life-is-so-dull-and-boring mindset may have been promoted by the too early cleverness and quick-shifting pseudo-life offered by a slick ride on Sesame Street?

The Problem is Passivity

The final and most basic problem I have with Sesame Street is the problem of television as a medium; that is, Sesame Street’s main problem is that it is television. I’m not referring to its program content (Big Bird and the Cookie Monster and the alphabet and all that) but to the fact that it is packaged as television. In fact, all the problems I’ve voiced about Sesame Street so far have little to do with the program content; they relate to the form in which the program is packaged.

Though many will disagree with me, I’m not much concerned about the program content of TV, the stuff that’s on, whether violence or promiscuous sexuality or shallowness or sexism or whatever. True, the values of the average sitcom are lousy. And the subhuman moral tone of the soap operas is even worse. And the gratuitous violence is worse yet. But program content (Big Birds, Cookie Monsters, careening cars, sexism, blazing guns, bedroom antics, shallow stupidity) is not the big problem. The big problem is the medium itself. You are passive. You sit and watch a box.

That kind of passivity strikes me as being basically anti-human and anti-Christian. By passivity I don’t mean meditation, prayer, introspection, even a whole monastic life, these are intensely active, even though they involve little physical activity. I mean the passivity of “Don’t ask me to think, I just want to be entertained.” Or “I’m bored, Mom, may I watch TV?” This runs counter to what I understand as the biblical way to live, whether for the five-year-old or the eighty-year-old. Hear my words and do them, said Jesus. Real life is doing, activity, involvement. For the five-year-old, this does not mean sitting watching an electronic alphabet. It does mean developing real language. It means extending physical skills. It means talking and snuggling with real people and forming real human relationships. It means developing imagination and creativity. And it means lots of play.

The Importance of Play

Play is not merely “taking up time”; it is the child’s whole way of getting to know this amazing world. But if children spend playtime passively sitting in the Street, they will lose or twist valuable physical or social skills. How sad the children who spend their childhood merely passively watching life rather than playing and actively participating in it. They’ll probably be the bored, dissatisfied adults of tomorrow who rent countless movies or who think that the ideal vacation consists of doing nothing but sitting on a Florida beach for an entire week.

If I were still the parent of young children, I would find it terribly tempting to use Sesame Street as either a baby-sitter or a time filler. (“At least they’re not watching violence or other junk!”) And television is surely the world’s most beguiling and inexpensive baby-sitter (“OK, kids, you may watch Sesame Street while Mommy makes dinner.”) And since Sesame Street has always been touted as being so “educational,” I would uncritically accept it as being worthwhile for preschool or early-school children.

The Long-Range Price is Too High True, the immediate, child-pacifying gains seem so much easier than all the more demanding play alternatives. (“Kids, let’s make a picture for Grandma or let’s feed the birds or talk to Dollie or bring scraps of paper to the neighbor’s rabbit or read a story or whatever.” In the long run, the parents’ situation is made more difficult. If television is used to take up the children’s time, children will be more likely to become passive or apathetic or instant-gratification people described earlier and that makes the parents’ job harder, not easier. Using the TV as a baby sitter increases the child’s bondage to the “idiot box” it is a plug-in drug.

Of course it’s true that there were bored and apathetic children long before there was television. And there were people who were passive and self-centered long before any of the mass media arrived. And, of course, it is too simple and convenient to blame TV for humankind’s sins and shortcomings. But I believe that such an awesomely powerful visual medium as TV has the ability, especially for the young, to shape their view of reality and to condition their expectations of what life is, will be, or should be. And if my guesses are correct about what TV in general and Sesame Street in particular does to children, then any parents who let children under the age of, let’s say, seven or eight, watch more than just a tiny bit of TV, are, to some degree at least, throwing their children’s future lives away.

When our Lord was on the earth, he had staggeringly harsh words for people who offended and corrupted children. (“It would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned,” Matt. 18:16). It seems to me that one of the easiest ways to be guilty of that today is to expose little ones to and get them hooked on the plug-in drug.

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