Commentary: Kudos to Sesame Street's Incarceration Toolkit

New program for kids with an incarcerated a parent is progressive and needed. 

Posted: 06/20/2013 02:11 PM EDT

Alex, an orange, green-nosed Muppet, sits on his stoop with his head down staring at his lap.

Why? His dad can’t come outside and play with him because he’s locked up.  

Alex is also mad at his dad and doesn’t want to talk about it because he thinks he’s the only kid who is going through this. Thankfully, an older friend admits that when she was Alex’s age her dad was incarcerated, too. Alex is relieved and the group begins talking about what the word “incarcerated” means.  

This touching scenario is part of Sesame Street’s newest toolkit in their ongoing series that addresses serious issues that kids are facing. Little Children, Big Problems: Incarceration, “a bilingual multimedia project,” provides resources for teachers and parents to help children cope with one of both of their parents being in the prison system. 

Sesame Street is no stranger to tackling tough topics. Over the years, they have addressed divorce, death and poverty. But this is the first time in the show’s 40-plus-year history that it has dealt with what it means to be have a parent behind bars.

“The incarceration of a loved one can be very overwhelming for both children and caregivers. It can bring about big changes and transitions,” says the sites website. “In simple everyday ways, you can comfort your child and guide her through these tough moments. With your love and support she can get through anything that comes her way.”

The impact of a parent lost to the system is real and renders these kids extremely vulnerable. Past studies have shown that children with an incarcerated parent are twice as likely to end up homeless, more likely to drop out of school or be suspended, be more aggressive; suffer from depression and feel isolated.

In no means will this one program wipe clean the racially unfair war on drugs or fix inequality or make people stop committing crimes. But what it does provide is an opportunity for people to be honest with themselves and their kids about how devastating this can be.

And plenty of families are feeling this pain, especially in our community.

Currently there are 2 million children in the U.S. with a parent who is in incarcerated — that’s 1 in 28 kids, according to a Pew Trust report. Yet when you look closer at the racial rates, our numbers are staggering. This same report found that one in nine African-American children has a parent that is locked up. That is 11.4 percent of Black kids, compared to 3.5 percent of Latino kids and 1.8 percent of White kids. (FYI: Of these parents, 75 percent of them are locked up for a non-violent offense.)

Of course, in true fashion, the Conservative Right has attacked this project, calling it “propaganda” and another attempt from the liberals to “normalize” prison by telling kids that it’s OK. But it’s what's to be expected from folks who believe that compressive sex ed makes young people want to have sex; AIDS is a direct consequence of being immoral; the HPV vaccine causes “mental retardation;” and a woman’s body “shuts” down during rape so it’s impossible for her to get pregnant.

Critical thinking and valuing science isn’t their strong suit.

So regardless of the right wing haters, I commend Sesame Street for wanting to address the complexities that families across the country are dealing with. Breaking the silence and encouraging a conversation about the impact that incarceration has on children is progressive, thoughtful and needed.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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