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C is for cookie, but P is for prison on Sesame Street

Opinions are divided about a new Sesame Street campaign targeting kids with incarcerated parents. (Sesame Street image)

C is for cookie on Sesame Street, but now P is for prison. Some people aren’t very happy the characters are teaching about life behind bars.

This week, the show added incarceration to the ABC’s, launching what it calls an incarceration tool kit with a series of online stories, tips, and activities for kids and caregivers alike. The producers say on the Sesame Street website it’s designed to act as “an educational outreach initiative for families with children (ages 3 – 8) who are coping with a parent’s incarceration.”

On one of the videos, a character named Alex is asked about his dad. He sheepishly deflects the questions from his friends before finally admitting his dad is in jail.

“I don’t like to talk about it, most people don’t understand,” he says with his head hung low. An adult goes on to explain to the others the meaning of incarceration and says her own father was incarcerated when she was younger.

“The incarceration of a loved one can be very overwhelming for both children and caregivers,” says the introduction to “Little Children,
Big Challenges: Incarceration.”

“It can bring about big changes and transitions. In simple everyday ways, you can comfort your child and guide her through these tough moments.”

It’s not the first time Sesame Street has tackled such a serious issue. The show has taken on such topics as AIDS, divorce, and sexual ambiguity.

While the new campaign is drawing plenty of praise, not everyone is happy about it.

“Congratulations, America, on making it almost normal to have a parent in prison or jail,” chided an editorial in the Libertarian leaning Reason Magazine.

“Of course, you look at the figures and it’s more normal than you might think. There are close to 2.7 million children growing up with a parent in prison,” said KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross on Seattle’s Morning News.

“The United States has a higher percent of imprisoned minorities than any other country in the world,” said Ross quoting a 2010 study from the Pew Charitable Trusts. “In Washington D.C., three out of every four young black men are expected to serve some time in prison. In major cities across the country, 80% of young African Americans now have criminal records.”

According to Ross, it’s a good thing somebody is willing to talk directly to the kids with an incarcerated parent.

“One study shows that half of the affected families say nothing, never talk about it. A third say the jailed parent, usually the father, is in the hospital.”

But KIRO Radio’s Kim Shepard doesn’t think Sesame Street is the place for such talk, especially with its young audience.

“How about those of us who don’t have an incarcerated spouse? I mean really, is Sesame Street going to next teach our kids about sex education. Where’s the line?” Shepard asked. “I thought Sesame Street was all about ABC’s and 123’s. What happened?”

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