Tuesday, September 8

Out-of-work muppets

Times are tough when even our lovable, huggable, furry friends can't keep a job.

The TV in the hospitality room of the Shilo Inn was tuned to The Today Show, and so I was treated to a glimpse of the upcoming feature, which involved Elmo and his mom. It seems Mom has recently lost her job, like so many other Americans.

The hosts hinted that the fuzzy duo would be discussing Elmo's feelings about it and giving some tips to kids for how to deal with this scary stuff/how to help their parents. I probably should have stuck around to watch, but I wanted to get back to the room. Also, I really can't stand Elmo, but that's beside the point.

I suppose it's good that someone is reaching out to kids who are probably pretty confused and scared. Money troubles, even in the best of times, can easily cause parents to fight or, at least, ominpresent tension. And children pick up on those vibes. Big time.

Still, I can't help but wonder at the placement of the skit. How many kids do you know who watch The Today Show? Or, more importantly, who understand it? This is a grown-up's program. Maybe some parents have it on in the background, and so their kids will take it in. But, by and large, I am betting that people will have to call their kids in to watch the segment.

So what's wrong with that? Well, essentially, you're being herded in to watch something with an IMPORTANT MESSAGE. So be sure you get that IMPORTANT MESSAGE, kiddos. Be sure you understand exactly what it is you're supposed to be learning from this. Don't, say, just watch this skit and glean from it what you will. Nope. You need to sit down, pay attention and get that IMPORTANT MESSAGE drilled into the marrow of your little kiddy bones.

Perhaps I'm overestimating kids. After all, if you're still at an age wherein you don't find Elmo repugnant and cloying, you will probably just be thrilled to see Muppets outside of the normal Sesame Street time period.

But, like I said, kids pick up on vibes more than we think. So I wonder just what kind of message it sends that parents will be calling the kids in to watch this skit and then telling them to skeedaddle. It's got to tell the kid, at least on some basic level, that they're supposed to get something from this. It might end up putting more pressure on a kid than it does to help.

I guess, in the end, I wonder why this piece was inserted into The Today Show, rather than being highlighted in Sesame Street. Why not put this lesson in a way that's less on the spot? Why not let kids see the information in the normal context?

I remember learning a bit having an unemployed parent by reading Ramona books. I really liked how these books dealt with real life issues in a realistic way. That is, off and on in the way a normal kid would take things in. Whether it was her sister going through puberty and horrible teen years or, in one book, her dad being out of work, these plots drifted in and out of the storyline, but were there, nonetheless.

Ramona understands that her dad doesn't have a job. And that there's a lot of tension. And that he comes home looking sad and tired. But, like a normal kid, she is still confused and disappointed when her parents say no to fast food, or when her dad doesn't bring her home a little present, even though she's home sick for the day.

Personally, I think this is a better way to present the information: The way the kid would actually perceive such things. That said, I'm not really up on my child development psychology. I don't know if certain ages need a more blunt presentation of certain topics.

What I do know, though, is that little kids really don't get larger adult issues. You can show them all the fuzzy puppets you like. That doesn't mean they'll better understand (for the long-term, anyway) why everyone's so upset. They'll just know there is tension and tempers flaring at random times. They'll see upset adults -- which, I believe, is what truly frightens them -- and they'll pick up on anger and fear. But explaining it to them once doesn't mean they'll really "get it." In fact, explaining it to them a billion times (given the short attention span of most kids) won't help, especially if they're still young enough to have to have Elmo explain things.

I think the more important thing to remember is that kids don't understand adult issues because, well, they're not adults. You can tell them your job doesn't exist anymore. But they don't know what a job is, really. They know you go away for hours a day and then you're home. They know, abstractly, what money is and maybe even that you get it from working. But a four- or five-year-old child is not going to be able to understand how job loss correlates to having less or being more stressed about money.

Children's needs are immediate and all-consuming. So every time they want things, you're going to have to explain to them that you can't afford it, why you can't afford it, etc. And they'll probably still think you're denying them out of some inherent meanness. Because, to kids, you're all powerful. You're huge, and you know everything, and you're just generally awesome. So how is some small child going to understand "can't afford"?


Blogger Ann said...

You are so right - my daughter, at 12, is too old for Elmo, but she still doesn't really "Get" that we can't afford stuff. Yes, she's seen daddy out of work, seen us cut back, sell stuff on Craigslist; we've even moved clear across the country to find work...so, on some level she understands, but not really. When I told her I couldn't fly her "back home" to see her friends because the airfare would be over $700., her reply was "that's not too bad, right??" Yikes. So, I've got some cash-understanding-work to do, but I'm pretty sure Elmo isn't going to help!

September 8, 2009 at 12:09 PM

Blogger Kimberly said...

I heard an interview yesterday on NPR with the producers of Sesame Street, and they were talking about this special. They said that, while kids would certainly benefit from watching it, it's actually more for the parents, since most parents may not understand exactly what fears and concerns a child may have when a parent loses a job. It shows them constructive ways to deal with these fears, and if they watch it together, gives them a place to start the discussion about what's going on with the economy and their family's finances.

September 9, 2009 at 9:04 AM


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