Children’s shows can and should deal with serious themes

Real-world issues like homelessness and illness are important for young kids to see

Photo courtesy of NBC News

Written by Komal Adeel, SFU Student

Reflecting back on the Saturday morning cartoons that filled our childhood, a lot of moments that stand out are those when kids’ shows got real. Sesame Street has always been a prime example of a show that uses its platform to discuss tough topics like HIV, incarceration, and military parents.

Last month, Sesame Street continued this trend with Lily, who was first introduced in 2011 to represent a food-insecure family. More recently though, she discussed how her family lost their home.

A lot of the initial response online was disappointingly pedantic, as swarms of people pointed out how Oscar the Grouch has been living in a trash can for decades. However, Lily is part of a bigger campaign by Sesame Workshop to provide support to homeless families, and in the process destigmatize childhood homelessness through the show, something much more real than Oscar or a lot of sillier children’s characters.

Serious topics and themes aren’t new to children’s television, but it’s great and important that we still see them in 2018. Lily is no exception.

I grew up watching Arthur, another show that is well-known for depicting a lot of sensitive issues head-on. One episode showed the school lunch lady being diagnosed with cancer and losing all her hair. Another depicted Arthur’s grandpa developing Alzheimer’s and showed how Arthur and his sister came to terms with the changes in his behaviour.

While these were serious issues, the show introduced me (and many others) to these complex ideas that we wouldn’t have learned or thought about unless they hit us directly, and provide us with greater emotional intelligence to handle intense moments with them. As a result, not dancing around it created a stronger learning experience.

Not every message in Arthur was as explicit as these ones though; one episode being more implicit, titled April 9, was about a fire that destroyed the school that was intended to reference the September 11th terrorist attacks. The characters in the show had a variety of similar experiences, from fearing for their parents safety to flashbacks of the fire.

While it didn’t address the attacks directly, it showed viewers that their feelings were valid, encouraged them to talk to people about how they felt, and ended with a hopeful message to keep moving forward. Even without using 9/11 by name, they managed to help understand the complex reactions that children may have seen.

This indirect approach can be just as effective, still dealing with serious and complex issues while not being too abstract or unclear. In an interview with NPR a few years ago, psychologist Jennifer Powell-Lunder used an episode of Glee as an example; one that involved directly involved presentation and discussion of a school shooting, considering it “not a good show for kids who’ve been through such a trauma to be viewing”, and expressing concern that it could “retraumatize” them.

Nonetheless, Powell-Lunder still considers the episode to be an effective way to present it, as it gives an opportunity to first start understanding it through a safer, fictional lens. When we speak in fully hushed tones about certain topics, we imply that there is something inappropriate or wrong about talking to them about it. This is not the message we want to be sending children; we want them to feel comfortable having open conversations, and able to learn or ask questions.

Back to Sesame Street and homelessness — the show is also going beyond just mentioning it. Alongside their programming, they have a huge variety of online resources for kids, families, and caregivers to learn about serious issues affecting their communities. With this, they aim just as well to empower homeless children themselves a group that totals 40,000 youth per year in Canada, and deserves to have their issues presented in programming intended for children of all sorts of situations and backgrounds.

Parents often struggle to discuss difficult topics with their kids, and children’s television is definitely a great tool to get those conversations started. We don’t need to hide children from the world, but we do need to help legitimize it, and help others properly understand it. There’s nothing wrong with TV helping accomplish that goal.