The video begins like any other scene from Sesame Street, with muppets seated on the steps, chatting about racing cars with their dads.
Except something is bothering Alex, a blue-haired muppet with droopy eyelids and dressed in a grey hoodie.
“All this talk about my dad and where he is got me really upset,” he tells his friends. “My dad is...my dad’s in jail.”
Earlier this week, the Sesame Workshop launched its “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration” program introducing Alex, the first-ever Muppet to have a father in jail. In a press release, the Sesame Workshop said that the program’s aim is to offer “support, comfort, and reduce anxiety, sadness, and confusion that young children may experience” during a parent’s incarceration.
The challenge that families face as a result of a parent’s incarceration is a growing one. A Pew Charitable Trust report showed that in the U.S., one in 28 children have a parent behind bars. Here in Canada, the prison population grew by 7 per cent between spring 2011 and 2012.
Alex and his friends handle the complex issue in their characteristically Muppet-like way: with a mixture of curiosity, sensitivity and humour.
“What’s ‘carcerated’, and why was your dad in it?” asks one of the muppets. “Incarcerated is when someone breaks the law – a grown-up rule – and then has to go to prison,” their human friend Sofia answers.
And when Alex explains how he feels about his father’s incarceration – angry, ashamed, confused – Sofia responds by saying that, as a child, she also had a parent in prison, and experienced those feelings, too. “It’s okay to feel whatever you feel,” she says.
The program includes online videos, tips for parents and caregivers on helping children cope, and even an animation titled “Visiting Dad in Prison.”
But whereas Sesame Street claims the program builds resilience in children, some U.S. conservatives are already slamming it, arguing that the campaign normalizes the idea of incarceration. “It strikes me that there’s no real advice offered for teaching kids lessons in right vs. wrong,” argued one commentator.
And over at Infowars, the radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones argued, predictably, that the campaign is part of a bigger conspiracy to condition Americans to the “inevitability” of prison. “According to Sophia [sic], all you have to do is talk about your feelings, draw a few pictures, write letters to your dad, and toddle off to visit him in jail every now and then and everything will be all rainbows and lollipops,” he wrote.
But unlike the pundits, the muppets are smart enough to know the answer isn’t simply to lay blame or prescribe solutions. Instead of talking down to him or telling him how to feel, the muppets simply listen to Alex, and tell him that they’re there for him.
“But what if I do grow up to be like him?” Alex asks sadly.
“We can be like our parents in some ways, and not like them in others,” says Sofia.“You have people who care about you, who can help you make good choices.”