The People in My Neighborhood

The TV I watched when I was a kid was all the stuff that the Children’s Television Workshop was designed to combat: cartoon violence, constant advertisement, a totally un-diverse reality–ethnically and economically. And I turned out okay, right? I still love Warner Bros. cartoons, and much of the for-kids TV of my childhood (okay, I outgrew Romper Room in a hot minute, and no one I knew actually liked Bozo the Clown). I also lived in the sort of unsupervised TV household where I watched whatever was on TV when I wasn’t playing or reading or doing chores or whatever. I didn’t look at the TV I saw as a way to make sense of my world. And a lot of the TV I watched as a kid was not just non-diverse, but actively soaking in stereotypes. It says something that the first time I encountered something that registered as an effort at diversity was an ad campaign in New York City for Levy’s rye bread. It had its own issues with stereotyping (and it was totally in service of commerce), but it was about inclusion. And it had roughly the same effect on me as Sesame Street singing about the people in my neighborhood. Recognition and delight.


So not only did I miss Sesame Street (I was a teenager when the show premiered), but I was not the target audience. Until I had kids.

My older daughter, in particular (born in 1990) was a Sesame Street kid. Not only did she get to watch Sesame Street broadcast in the morning, but we had a slew of tapes for weekends and other “watch something” moments. And I became a convert. Up to that point I’d been, frankly, a little dubious about the show, which seemed so… slow, and unanarchic, and maybe a little pandering (both to the values of parents, and to the childishness of children). But that was because I had never seen Sesame Street.

I was working at Tor Books at the time my daughter was a Sesame Street kid, and my co-worker Claire (whose son was born about a year after my daughter) would meet up every morning and sync Sesame Street ear-worms. Once you’ve heard “Put Down the Duckie” or “Ladybug’s Picnic” a couple of times it gets knit into your DNA. And I had had no idea the breadth of genres that the Street embraced, musically, from a Fred-and-Ginger style number about how to say Hello in Spanish (“Hola!“) to the Alphabet sung by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. And the parodies of every TV show, film, and broadway musical (Big Bird deciding not to migrate, lip syncing to Lin Manual Miranda!). And every performer and athlete and even Supreme Court Justices dropping by in the service of teaching about words and numbers and life. Funny and smart and way more far-roaming than I had ever imagined.

Sesame Street was created to solve problems that my kids never had: poverty, literacy, exclusion. But it was one of the forces that made them kinder, more inclusive, more generous people. The song “Who Are the People In Your Neighborhood” included teachers, elevator operators, doctors, mechanics–basically anyone and everyone. For a while my younger daughter, in particular, took to looking at everyone we encountered, trying to suss out who they might be. And in pre-school this led to her being a “poor person” when her class was role-playing People in the Neighborhood.  Aside from her own empathic nature, I credit Sesame Street with making her look at all the people that she encountered with a sharper eye.

Sesame Street turned 50 this year, and is a recipient at the Kennedy Honors. Given that Ronald Grump once attempted to demolish Sesame Street to build a new Grump Tower, that may be considered a triumph of art over commerce. I don’t see the need for Sesame Street diminishing any time soon, alas. And I’m very glad indeed that it’s here with us.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


The People in My Neighborhood — 6 Comments

  1. My kids were Sesame kids too. My daughter taught herself to read by watching the show. I foolishly thought that three was too young to push literacy, and didn’t make any effort that way.

    • Mine did, too! She surprised the crap out of me by identifying almost the entire alphabet when she was around two. Reading came more slowly, but it was effortless. But she took against Sesame Street by the time she was four, partly because “Everybody is a boy, mom, why aren’t there any girls?” and partly because nobody believed Big Bird about the snuffleupagus, and that made her anxious. But she’d gotten good worth out of the show before then–and adored Kermit.

      • You (or your daughter) may know that they finally brought Snuffy out into the light–changed him from “imaginary” to real and introduced him to the adults in the neighborhood–specifically because of concerns that kids might feel they would not be believed if they told a secret or reported abuse. I remember reading about the process of making that decision–one of the things I have come to appreciate is how they made those decisions. By the time my kids came along Snuffy was just another colorful member of the neighborhood.

        • I did NOT know that. She was so upset by Big Bird telling the truth and not being believed that we pretty much had to put an embargo on Sesame Street, though it had been her fave at ages two and three. Very glad they rethought that. (I did learn that they also added females to the puppet gallery as well.)

  2. Except now, Sesame Street is now controlled by HBO and its owners, and can no longer be seen on public access stations, i.e. ‘poor person’s’ kids are going to see Sesame Street, if at all, much later.

    [ …”that’s why the recent announcement that HBO Max is going to be its home for the next five seasons is heartbreaking. This is not new: When HBO started airing the show in 2016, the shift away from the show primarily airing on the public airwaves began. But the HBO Max deal formalizes the tiered access that means those with more resources will see the most timely, important episodes first, and that’s ghastly.

    Under the HBO Max deal, here are the release windows: Those with an HBO Max subscription — about $15 a month and an Internet connection required, mind you — will see episodes first. Those with access to PBS Kids from a browser, set-top box or the free app — and, of course, the ability to pay for the cable or Internet required and for the necessary equipment — will get them nine months after.

    Here’s where it gets tricky. PBS Kids programming is also available on local PBS stations, but only if those affiliates opt in to carry it. If they do, viewers in those markets will also have access to belated episodes of “Sesame Street” for free if they have a TV that can access those stations.

    That’s a lot of ifs, especially considering the demographic that watches PBS affiliates on TV: kids from poor families who don’t have access to other more expensive, harder to access children’s programming networks. According to PBS, children between the ages of 2-8 in homes that access TV over the air represent 13 percent of the population; these children watch three times as much PBS and their viewing makes up 37 percent of weekday viewing of PBS stations. ” ]

  3. Sesame Street was still a toddler when my son was of the age to watch. I’d turn on the TV and sit in front of it with my knitting. Little Baby Boy (LLB) was free to wander in and out of the living room. But since Mom was there, he was mostly there too.

    I didn’t know how much he absorbed until one day he came running to me in the kitchen, pulled on my jeans and said, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, up!” and he pointed with his finger toward the ceiling. A few minutes later he repeated the statement but said “down” with the appropriate gesture. I had not consciously taught him this. He’d absorbed it, at 18 months from Sesame Street. We continued the ritual until he started school and I went back to work.

    He was slow to read because he was bored silly by the books offered at school. Then in about 3rd grade he discovered Star Trek Books. These books were about old friends he shared the dinner table with every night. In three months he was reading 3 grade levels above his class mates. And he questioned the science.

    TV can be a useless wasteland. It can also be an amazing educational tool.