Sesame Street is no stranger to controversy. From divorce to AIDS to Bert and Ernie’s sexual ambiguity, the show has famously pushed the limits on what preschoolers should know.
Sesame Street’s latest hot topic — incarceration — debuted this week as an educational kit titled “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration.” The package, which consists of stories, tips and activities for caregivers and kids, is designed to act as “an educational outreach initiative for families with children (ages 3 – 8) who are coping with a parent’s incarceration,” the Sesame Workshop website explains.
As The Atlantic’s J.K. Trotter notes, the package has so far elicited pretty polarized reactions:
CBS News, which unveiled the effort, praise the attempt to confront the very real issue of children with loved ones in jail: “Sesame Street, in its simple, familiar way, is trying to break [incarceration] down, using imaginary characters to explore — and explain — what was once unimaginable, but now more and more common.” (Indeed, the U.S. incarceration rate is the world’s highest.) The libertarian magazine Reason, however, saw things a bit differently: “Congratulations, America, on making it almost normal to have a parent in prison or jail.
According to a 2010 study The Pew Charitable Trusts , nearly 2.7 million children are growing up with a parent who is in prison. It’s an epidemic that has largely plagued minority communities, though a report earlier this year revealed a reverse in that longstanding trend.
Incarceration rates for black Americans dropped sharply from 2000 to 2009, especially for women, while the rate of imprisonment for whites and Hispanics rose over the same decade, the report, released in February by prison research and advocacy group The Sentencing Project, noted.
No single factor could explain the shifting figures, Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project told The New York Times, but changes in drug laws and sentencing for drug offenses probably played a large role. Other possible contributors included decreasing arrest rates for blacks, the rising number of whites and Hispanics serving mandatory sentences for methamphetamine abuse, and socioeconomic shifts that have disproportionately affected white women, he added.
What can be explained is what exactly incarceration means and the feelings a young child may have after a parent’s gone off to jail, says University of Wisconsin psychologist Julie Poehlmann.