In 2014, when Sesame Street turned forty-five, I wrote this blog post about the importance of a television show for children that, for my money, was the best of all time. Not only did the show teach academic skills such as letter recognition and counting but, it taught life skills to children in a very natural and respectful way. As an elementary school teacher for 27 years at the time of the creation of this post, one of the lessons I had learned is that children want to understand their world and that they are capable of understanding weighty topics when the adults in their world take the time to explain things clearly and with respect. The episode on Sesame Street that dealt with the death of Mr. Hooper is the best example of how to help children deal with important issues. Please enjoy this important post from five years ago. Thanks.
M: M is for Mr. Hooper
North American network television is a vast intellectual wasteland…..with all due respect to those who consider The Jerry Springer Show to be fine investigative journalism or Honey Boo-Boo to be wholesome family drama.
But, one area where North American network television comes off shining like new dimes is in the area of producing quality educational programming for children. Throughout the entire history of television broadcasting in North America, there have been plenty of examples of shows that were created to help children learn basic skills such as counting and reading, as well as, lessons in life such as how to be a good friend.
In Canada, we have had shows such as The Road to Avonlea (based upon Anne of Green Gables), Mr. Dressup, The Friendly Giant, as well as, the whole segments of their daily schedules allotted to children’s programming by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (C.B.C.) and TV Ontario (T.V.O.).
In the United States, there have been excellent programmes such as Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Rogers Neighbourhood, the Electric Company and, today’s great shows such as the Magic School Bus, Sid the Science Kid, Super Why and many, many more. All of these shows are well-written; mixing the teaching of facts with adventure and humour. All are respectful of the intellectual development of their audience members and always talk to them at a level appropriate for them to understand. All of these shows deliver good messages such as believing in yourself, never giving up and doing the right thing, even when no one os looking. They are all good shows and, as a parent and a teacher, I can, wholeheartedly, recommend them as good viewing for today’s children.
However, there is one show that towers above the rest in terms of the depth, breadth and impact of its’ programming on the cultural landscape of North America. That show is Sesame Street. The cast of characters from this show is a veritable who’s-who of cultural icons: Big Bird, the Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, Grover, Oscar the Grouch, just to name a few. Sesame Street has been on the air for over forty years. In that time, countless children have learned to count with the number of the day, learned to spell because of the letter of the day or, to read because of the word of the day. But, just as importantly, the characters all live together, in harmony, in their own neighbourhood. If nothing else, Sesame Street has provided a visual demonstration, day in and day out, of how communities and neighbourhoods should be. We should all care about our neighbour’s well-being. We should all pitch in and work together to help maintain our neighbourhoods. We should willingly join together to celebrate the good times and commiserate during the bad. They did, every episode, on Sesame Street, in the most natural, unobtrusive way.
Being a parent and a teacher, I have found that, often, the best way to help children develop into well-adjusted, positive-minded adults is to treat them with honesty, fairness and respect. There are plenty of moments that provide opportunities for the teaching of life lessons along the way. Knowing how to handle such sensitive moments properly can help to lay a foundation of trust that will bear fruit, later in life, when the consequences of our children’s decisions may leave more permanent marks on their lives.
Under a cotton ball sky, A nest is discovered, One egg left unhatched. Tiny hands reach out to cradle newfound treasure. Lessons in life and death ensue. The price of growing up: Innocence.
When I think about moments life this, I recall one time when TV actually led the way. In what is widely considered one of the finest moments ever in all of broadcasting history, The Children’s Television Workshop accorded children everywhere the ultimate compliment by treating them with respect and compassion and believing them capable of understanding one of the most sensitive of all topics: Death.
When one of the long time actors on Sesame Street passed away in real life, the writers decided to use his absence as a teachable moment. They did so by having the rest of the adults on Sesame Street help Big Bird understand that Mr. Hooper, his friend, had died and what that actually meant. The airing of this episode was a watershed moment in Television history and one that still is used to help explain the concept of Death to children (most recently during the Sandy Hook tragedy). If you want to see television at its’ best then, watch “Big Bird Learns About Death.” Sorry, in advance, for making you cry.
You can watch this special scene here.
I always, always lose it right after Big Bird says that he is going to go into the store to give Mr. Hooper his drawing and the rest of the people gathered there react with uncomfortable silence. I cry and I cry because Big Bird is about to lose some of that most precious of childhood treasures; his innocence. But Death is a thorny issue, strewn as it is with emotional land mines all around. In my opinion, the producers of Sesame Street handled this episode perfectly.
First of all, they didn’t tell Big Bird that Mr. Hooper died because he was old. Many children view their own parents as being old. To equate age with death would needlessly worry millions of young children the next time one of their parents coughed. Secondly, they didn’t tell Big Bird that Mr. Hooper died because he was sick. Children get sick all of the time. No one wanted them to become scared that they were going to die just because they developed a routine illness.
No, Big Bird was told several important things: Mr. Hooper died just because it is a normal part of life. Big Bird was told that his friends would still be there for him and that life would continue to go on as normally as possible. Big Bird was told that it is normal to feel sad and that the adults did, too.
I have been alive on this planet for fifty years and have watched tv shows, of one sort or another, for almost all those years. In my opinion, as a seasoned consumer of television shows, those six minutes on Sesame Street are the finest moments ever to air on network television. It just goes to show the power of television when producers create shows with thoughtfulness and respectfulness at the core of their broadcasting philosophies.
Did you have a favourite tv show when you were a child? As parents, what does/did your child like to watch? Do they watch tv at all or, is everything viewed from the Internet these days? Whatever the case, please feel free to share your feelings in the comment box below. Thanks, as always, for reading. 🙂