How ‘Sesame Street’ Handles Tough Topics

Alex, a muppet with an incarcerated father, isn't the first character living on Sesame Street to draw attention to grown-up issues

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In June, Alex, a muppet with an incarcerated father, made his debut on Sesame Street‘s website. It’s only the latest effort by the children’s show to bring more reality to the rarefied world of educational TV.

Alex’s story is part of a one-year pilot project of videos, multimedia resources and events in 10 states to help children (and their parents) understand and cope with having loved ones in jail. (For now, Alex is not part of the regular show’s storyline.)  Sesame Street‘s producers hope the intiative will raise awareness and sensitivity about the issues that these youngsters face, both at home and in school. So Sesame Workshop teamed up with the Department of Health and Human Services, groups like the McCormick Foundation, and schools to test the concept with special events and apps for children. Earlier this year, for example, Sesame Street characters appeared at an event at Rikers Island to encourage parents who were hesitant to bring their kids to visit loved ones in prison to be more comfortable with the idea. At the end of the year, Alex and the program may become available to families nationwide.

So far, the reception has been mixed. Officials at CBS News, where the project was unveiled, praised it for attempting to confront a very real issue that few children’s programs discuss.

But there has been some backlash: As TIME reported, the initiative could be helping to “normalize” having a parent in jail. And some family experts argue that Sesame should be focusing on critiquing a broken criminal justice system, rather than making incarceration more acceptable to kids.

But Sesame has been very careful with its messaging, emphasizing on the show that people find themselves in jail when they break a “grown up rule,” and helping kids with parents in prison to work past their feelings of anger, sadness and alienation. Plus, they argue, many kids need the help: nearly 2 million American children now have an incarcerated parent.

It’s far from the first time that Sesame Street has taken on “tough topics.” In an interview published Wednesday, Lynn Chwatsky, Sesame Workshop’s vice president for initiatives, partnerships, and community engagement, told Fast Company that programs to help kids through difficult problems has been a mission for the show for some time: “We took a step back. This is basically resilience work. We asked ourselves, how else do you help children and the adults in their lives get through tough transitions?”

Here are some of the ways that Sesame Street programmers have brought more reality to the world of Oscar, Elmo and Big Bird in recent years.

MORE: Viewpoint: What’s Missing from Sesame Street’s Parents in Prison Toolkit

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HIV / AIDS Awareness (2002)

Kami, an HIV-positive muppet, was introduced in the program’s South African show to reduce the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. Kami contracted the disease from a tainted blood transfusion she received as an infant, and soon after she appeared, she became a jet-setting international figure. She joined Roger Moore and Whoopi Goldberg in announcing a UNICEF and Clear Channel campaign to raise HIV/AIDS awareness among children, and appeared in a PSA with Bill Clinton.

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Military Families (2005)

Originally intended to help families with members deployed overseas, by 2012 the initiative developed into a broader project to help kids with parents who were injured (mentally or physically) or killed in the military. Sesame Street members partnered with speakers such as the Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff, General Martin Dempsey to express support of military families in 2012. 

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Divorce (2012)

In the first of Sesame‘s “Little Children, Big Challenges” series, muppet Abby draws pictures of her two houses, each one belonging to one of her divorced parents. The show introduced a kit that included tips, stories and activities to help parents explain divorce to their children and help them cope emotionally with the change. The pilot project involving Alex and parents in jail will follow the same model.

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