D Is for Divorce: Sesame Street Tackles Another Touchy Topic

How do you teach preschoolers about divorce? If you're Sesame Street, the answer is simple: very, very carefully.

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Richard Termine for Sesame Street

Abby Cadabby


This story was produced by Tumblr Storyboard as part of a content partnership with Time.com.

In early 1992, a census report predicted that 40% of children would soon live in divorced homes. As one of the most famous children’s-television programs in the world, Sesame Street was determined to take on a topic most kids shows wouldn’t touch. They cast Snuffy, a.k.a. Mr. Snuffleupagus, for the part of a child with divorced parents.

With a team of its best writers, researchers and producers, a segment was scripted and shot. It went through a half-dozen revisions, with input from the foremost researchers in the field. And on a typical sunny afternoon on Sesame Street, the furry, red elephantine Muppet prepared to drop the bomb on his loyal preschool viewers.

“My dad is moving out of our cave,” Snuffy confides to Big Bird one afternoon, distraught after knocking over a house built of blocks. “I’m not sure where,” he continues, crying. “Some cave across town.”

Big Bird, naturally, is horrified. “But why?” he asks his friend.

Snuffy blinks his long, dark eyelashes and pauses. We know what’s coming. Well, he explains, “because of something called a divorce.”

You can pretty much guess where it goes from there: Gordon explains why divorces happen. Viewers learn that sometimes divorce can be “for the best.” We are assured that Snuffy and his sister Alice will always be loved. And yet when Sesame Street tested the segment on preschoolers, just weeks before it was scheduled to air, it was nothing short of a disaster. The children didn’t know where Snuffy was going to live. They didn’t think his parents loved him. Some worried their own parents might get a divorce. They cried. “It was really the first time we’d produced something, put all this money into it, tested it, and it just didn’t work,” says Susan Scheiner, a longtime Sesame Street researcher, who worked on the segment. “We thought we had it. We thought this was really revolutionary, and then it was just bad.”

Sesame Street killed the segment, and for the two decades since, producers have avoided the word on air — until now. For the past two years, a concentrated team of researchers, writers and producers in the outreach department of Sesame Workshop (the nonprofit that operates Sesame Street) have been working on a new version of that segment, replacing Snuffy with the sparkly pink fairy known as Abby Cadabby (whose parents, we learn, have been divorced for some time). This week, Sesame Workshop will debut the 13-minute segment online — part of a massive multimedia kit called Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce, which includes a storybook (Two Hug Day), a guide for parents and an app, funded as part of a larger initiative geared toward military families. The segment itself won’t air on TV — it’s among Sesame Street’s “targeted” programming aimed at specific populations — but it will tackle divorce directly, in a way producers hope is accessible, understandable and, well, not quite so scary. “We want kids to understand that they’re not alone, and that it’s not their fault,” says Lynn Chwatsky, Sesame Workshop’s vice president of outreach initiatives, who oversaw the project. “These kids love and adore Abby. So to know that she’s going through something similar to them, something challenging, it’s like, Wow. It makes it O.K. to have a whole range of feelings.”

“Big Feelings” is a theme of the video segment, which features Abby, the happy-go-lucky fairy-in-training, at its center. Viewers know little about Abby’s parents up until now, so when she and some friends decide to draw pictures of their homes, Elmo and Rosita are surprised to learn that Abby has not one, but two houses. “This one is where I live with my mommy,” Abby proclaims confidently, holding up her crayon drawing, “and this one is where I live with my daddy.”

The reason? Well, you know the reason. “Divorce means that Abby’s mommy and daddy aren’t married anymore,” Gordon explains.

It’s sweet, and certainly better late than never. Because, while the statistics may be dire — more than a million children have parents who divorce or separate each year; many of those breakups happen in the preschool years — researchers say that resources intended for preschool-aged children are still shockingly scarce. No, children of divorce won’t necessarily be more screwed up than their peers with nondivorced parents, but they can be — if they don’t get the right support from the adults around them. So information for parents and children alike is key. “I think the biggest challenge for parents is that they are overwhelmed themselves,” says Robert Hughes, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and one of four independent consultants who advised on the project. “So it’s managing their own emotions and then figuring out how to deal with their children’s emotions. That’s where Sesame Street comes in — it gives you a tool.”

Most viewers may not know it, but Sesame Street was the first show to use empirical research as part of its programming. Now in its 44th season, what that level of research means is that producing shows for Sesame Street can take months, if not years — involving dozens of experts, researchers and psychologists, as well as impeccably sourced advisory teams who are asked to serve as critics. Big Bird as political pawn and Elmo sex scandal aside, it’s a model that’s allowed the show to tackle subjects that, as 30-year Sesame Street veteran Lewis Bernstein puts it, “sometimes you’d think you wouldn’t want to touch with a 10-foot pole”: race, adoption, love, pregnancy, incarceration — even death. When, in the early 1980s, the longtime cast member who played Mr. Hooper died suddenly, Sesame Street faced up to the change — explaining that Mr. Hooper (Will Lee) wouldn’t be returning to the show (or his store). “If we left it unsaid,” the executive producer reasoned at the time, “kids would notice.” Last month, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the show reaired an episode in which Big Bird’s nest is devastated by a storm. “A lot of people want to shield kids from the tougher issues,” says Chrissy Ferraro, a writer on the show. “My feeling is, the more information the kid has, the better.”

And divorce? Sure, it will probably alarm some parents to see Muppets talking about such an emotional minefield. Studies on the benefits of Sesame Street could fill a bookshelf, and yet the show has always faced criticism, over everything from Cookie Monster’s pipe smoking (ah, the early days) to Oscar the Grouch’s mood swings (yes) to Abby herself, who — when she became the first female Muppet to join the show in a decade, in 2006 — some believed was too “pink.”

But these days, divorce is simply a reality — “a fact of American life,” as one dad involved in the project put it — so widespread it would almost be taboo to ignore it. And so, two decades post-Snuffy debacle, the outreach team eagerly took a second crack at the topic. Admittedly, it wasn’t simple. Researchers wondered which Muppet has the best personality for the role, what kind of vocabulary would be best to get the message across. And while the goals were easy — to help kids understand that divorce is never their fault, that mom and dad will still love them — accomplishing them was another story. “TV can be a very impressive teacher — if it’s done correctly,” says Dorothy Singer, the co-founder, with her husband, of the Family Television Research and Consultation Center at Yale. Of course, there’s lots to it: “Pacing is important, repetition is important, the clarification of ideas is important.”

First, of course, there was the character to think about. Had Snuffy’s demeanor made him a more somber force? He’s got those big eyes, that deep voice, those long, weepy eyelashes. Would a pink, bubbly fairy be a better match for such a serious topic?

Then there was the crucial distinction of timing: Snuffy had experienced his divorce in the present; he was upset, angry, crying. His emotions were raw. But Abby would reveal her story as something that happened in the past — an important distinction, say researchers, to show kids that she’s made it to the other side.

But perhaps the most important difference had to do with audience: targeting only the kids who are experiencing a divorce or whose parents wanted to make the point of downloading the content. In other words: there would be no divorce segment catapulting into your living room unannounced. Sesame Street almost made that mistake before.

The initiative won’t be available until Tuesday, and yet in testing programs this past March, kids seemed to get it. Huddled into conference rooms at Sesame Workshop’s midtown headquarters, the preschoolers were broken into small groups, accompanied by a parent who’d viewed the DVD already. (Each parent in the room was either divorced or separated.)

This time, there was no crying. The kids knew exactly where Abby lived. They smiled. As Gordon and Abby signed off with a duet — repeating, again and again, “They live in different places but they both love me” — kids hummed along.

“It’s not her fault,” one 7-year-old offered.

“It made me feel happy, because Abby told Gordon a lot of her mixed feelings,” said another.

It’s wasn’t magic, exactly — but it felt like it had the blessing of a certain pink fairy.

“This isn’t an easy topic, but that’s the beauty of Muppets,” says Chwatsky. “They can do things that even some grown-ups can’t.”

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21 comments
star9837123
star9837123

There was a Sesame Street episode only aired in Africa where they talked about coping with AIDS

ChanteLatrellSmith
ChanteLatrellSmith

sorry sesame street mister rogers beat you to it on that subject decades ago.

GregWilson
GregWilson

How about Elmo takes it Anal? Or P is for Prevert!

SunniD
SunniD

Liberals LOL. If you think it takes a village ( or a tv show) to raise your child you are an idiot.  Take some parental responsibility and turn off the television.

MichaelFitz-Gibbon
MichaelFitz-Gibbon

More liberal claptrap being shoved into our children's' brains. Like "counting" and "sharing". 

They're probably teaching them that "evolution" and "germ theory" crap, too! 

This is why my kids are only going to read the Bible and take trips to the Creation Museum.

Vypyr
Vypyr

Ok, when is Sesame Street going to tackle the big subjects of "Why did daddy sleep with 4 young men?" and "What is statutory rape?" I noticed Hasbro hasn't dropped the Elmo toy line up because its all about the big dollar! So, what have we learned kiddies? Its ok to have sex if they're underage and of the same sex..as long as there is money to be made. 

texasghost01
texasghost01

And by the way...the subject of divorce has already been discussed on the show.  Back in 1989 when Kermit (playing the roving news reporter) interviewed a bird that sang a song that went...

"My Mom and Dad live in different trees..but they still love me."

How about leaving it alone...just replay the News Reporter skit if they want to discuss divorce.

BenIncaHutz
BenIncaHutz

I'm starting the process to divorce my wife next month. Been married 8 yrs and its been hell. I married an immature, selfish idiot that I thought I could change. It doesnt happen. People dont change unless the want to. I have a 6 yr old and only stayed with her because of him but I have lost the ability to cope. She is toxic and I need her out of my life and out of my home. I'm glad they are touching on a subject as touchy as this. Its so important and so painful for everyone involved. Its a pain I will carry for the rest of my life. My son is amazing but I should have never dated much less married his mom.

glennra3
glennra3

"Yes, sweetie, mommy and daddy got along just fine until you came along.  So, you see, the divorce really is your fault."

Another Sesame Street segment that didn't test well.

jason024
jason024

May as well bring it up. Divorce and sham marriages will do more harm to the "sanctity of marriage" than gays getting married ever will.  

brocktalbot
brocktalbot

I think Sesame Street will continue to have fun, playful themes, no doubt about that. Yet sometimes media can explain issues to children in a different, sometimes more helpful way than parents could ever explain. With my parents recently divorcing, my eight year old brother didn't understand the explanation and reasoning my mom gave him as to why. Hopefully the show will give kids a character that relates to them and can teach them from their own perspective.

texasghost01
texasghost01

Ok...is Sesame Street always going to be the mean reality of truth for kids now?  Whatever happened to the fun Sesame Street used to reveal to kids?

Not everything is all bad news...

Middleoftheroadjason
Middleoftheroadjason

what an exciting diverse life they lead!!! The Bible has some of the most messed up family and people lives ever!!!!

Middleoftheroadjason
Middleoftheroadjason

Good for you man. But the kid's got to be worth it...hope you let him know that!

SuzyG
SuzyG

@BenIncaHutz So sorry you're going through this.  Positive thoughts and prayers for you and your son.

kelseymharrell
kelseymharrell

What have we learned boys and girls? Never marry someone on the pretense of making them change. Especially if you don't like them or their manerisms in the first place. More so, don't have a kid with them.

GaiusPompusMagnus
GaiusPompusMagnus

@BenIncaHutz You're not the only one.   Congratulations.   Yeah it will have its challenges but here's to.....FREEDOM!

YoMan
YoMan

@texasghost01 I think the point is portraying the subject as another option, not as bad news.  I've got a son who watches the show regularly and I don't think the "downers" are a majority, or even a regular minority.  The general tone of the show is still upbeat and fun but they do touch on the heavy stuff from time to time.  This is nothing new, I remember being a kid way back when Mr Hooper died, and it felt heavy at the time.  

capes777
capes777

@kelseymharrell That's exactly what I was thinking when I read BenIncaHutz's post. That's so dumb why people do that kind of crap. Really, why the hell would anyone marry and choose to have a child with someone that you don't even like? That's completely the fault of the person who thought the other  person could somehow change. Besides, it would be wrong and out of instinct to try to change someone's personality to your liking. A good relationship has a strong base, which is clearly missing in so many relationships, leading to a dreaded divorce. Lesson to be learned: Be smart and know what is best for not just yourself, but for everyone that may be involved.

bamabreeze
bamabreeze

Being a parent that is recently divorced and has a two year old daughter I can say that I see nothing wrong with their presentation.  As a matter of fact it does a most excellent job of presenting the situation.   I can easily see that being my daughter sitting there drawing the pictures of her two homes.  No one wanted to have it end this way sometimes that is just how things have to be.  The littles ones are caught in the middle through no fault of their own. But explain that concept to a two year old.  Everything they know has suddenly be turned upside down.  After 44 years of being there for millions of viewers myself included Seasame Street does not have to explain themselves.  I was there from the start watching the muppets.  The present the world to children in a way they can understand.  They dont hit them over the head with it.  It is going to be revealed in some manner why not allow them to exercise the right to participate in helping.  They do thousands of hours of kind gentle subjects in comparison to the hard ones.  That is how life should be.  Thing is we all tend to take them small ounce and ruin the entire batch of life.