For years now Sesame Street has been no stranger to controversy.
While many children’s programs — and adult shows, too — shy away from getting too politically involved, Sesame Street’s South African and Nigerian versions have skirted right-wing hemming and hawing to include an HIV-positive character. In 2006, a human Sesame Street character named Gina traveled to Guatemala to adopt a son, thus becoming a single mother.
These kinds of stances have frequently made the decades-old children’s program a subject of great conservative ire, with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney echoing a famous GOP sentiment and saying during his 2012 campaign that he’d defund PBS and Sesame Street if given the chance.
Today, it appears as if Sesame Street is giving puritans yet another reason to get upset: an incarceration “education kit” for children whose parents are 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,” reads the kit’s web page. “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.”
Perhaps it should seem strange to you that Sesame Street is now helping to counsel children on how to deal with a parent going away to jail. Alas, it’s an ugly fact, but the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world today, with over 2.2 million adults now living behind bars. More than 4.5 million more live under some different kind of correctional watch.
Writing for Al Jazeera this year, professor Heather Schoenfeld said, “Although the US is widely recognized as a ‘land of liberty,’ it could also be described as a nation of prisons. … Its imprisonment rate (per capita) is almost 50 percent higher than Russia's and 320 percent higher than China's."
What’s more, despite the fact that incarceration rates for Black men have dropped steeply, they’re still much higher than rates for white men. A New York Times article from February notes that Black men were 6.4 times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.
It is indeed a shame that imprisoning people has become so standard in America that we’ve now got to explain it to our children as a fact of life. But I’d rather we have a Sesame Street program that helps children cope with that reality than no program at all. Because in the end, healthier and happier children are the ones less likely to become imprisoned adults.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: Courtesy of SesameStreet.org)