Secret Lessons From Sesame Street

Big Bird with Pat Nixon

It was not until I was an adult that I realized that behind Sesame Street is a grand conspiracy.

It’s been on the air for forty years now, and we’re all familiar with the format: short, simple skits involving muppets, neighborhood human cast members and the occasional celebrity.  Each skit has an obvious educational point to get across.

Back when I was a kid it seemed to be the same lessons we learned in school: letters and numbers, shapes, colors, playing fair with others, sharing.  Familiar, scholastic topics, taught by ridiculous monsters and ultra-kind grownups.  I thought these nuts-and-bolts lessons were really as far as they went on the educational side.  The rest was just entertainment.

Unbeknownst to me, the Sesame Street writing team was secretly preparing us kids for things a lot tougher than kindergarten-level math.  A team of researchers and psychologists were cleverly engineering these little scenes to pass on some profound lessons about the grandest of themes: life, love, suffering and death.

In particular, everybody remembers when Mr Hooper died [Tissues recommended if you watch this clip.] Big Bird had been told that Hooper was dead, and our yellow friend reasoned that he’d give him the portrait he drew “when he gets back.”

The adults were then faced with the delicate task of informing him — and millions of children watching — that Mr Hooper was never coming back, and why it has to be that way.  “Just because” was the final reason given by Bob.

I don’t remember if it was my own introduction to the concept of death, but Mr Hooper’s colorless portrait did become the symbol of death in my mind for a long time.

After I had moved on to more mature and more educational shows like Transformers and Inspector Gadget, Sesame Street’s writers took on more tricky issues such as divorce, racism and HIV.

Through Big Bird’s Eyes

Big Bird, I’ve come to realize, was not just a lovable, well-meaning avian who happened to roam the streets and alleys of New York.  Sesame Street is loaded with symbols and allegories, and Big Bird represents a child’s limited understanding of the world.  He takes everything at face value, unaware of innuendo, prone to constant misunderstandings.  He is the conduit through which children can begin to understand the complexity and unfairness of the real world, by following his interactions with the adult characters on the show.

But at the time he was, to me, just a big silly bird, and I didn’t know what I was learning from him.  Even young kids soon get wise to the fact that they’re being taught something, and though they may learn a lot, they can’t help but tune it out after a while.  For example, no matter what the storyline behind the skit, as soon as the purple stereotype “Count von Count” appears, you know that you’re about to be drilled with a standard one-to-ten countoff (ah ha ha ha!)

In hindsight, the skits that really taught me the most were the ones in which the lessons were not the explicit, academic type we knew from school.  They were hidden in the daily goings-on in the neighborhood, the casual exchanges between Luis, Maria, Bob, Gordon and Big Bird.

When you learn something without consciously realizing it, I think it affects you more deeply than if it’s plainly spelled out for you.  Those sorts of lessons feed right into your intuition, your sense of the world as a whole, not just the “numbers and letters” area of your brain.  Without your knowing it, they may eventually emerge in your gut feelings, your values and worldview.

Life Hurts

There’s one lesson I remember very well, when Big Bird learns a disturbing reality about life.

Luis breaks his arm in a fall in his shop.  Big bird is very upset to see him in a cast, unable to use his arm for eight weeks.

Big Bird vows to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again.  When Luis opens up the shop the morning after the cast is removed, he finds every surface is covered with padding.  His stock, cash register and office are all rendered inaccessible, though harmless.  When Big Bird shows up he proudly shows off his hard work (which he calls “Snuffle-padding”) but Luis is not pleased.  He can’t work at all.

Big Bird cannot accept that Luis could very well fall and break his arm again if he were to remove the padding, so Luis must explain that you can’t go through life being afraid of getting hurt.  It just isn’t realistic.  It’s okay to get hurt once in a while.  Things heal.  Trying to make sure you can’t get hurt will stop you from doing the things you love.

To my five-year-old mind, this particular situation was really only directly relevant to Big Bird and Luis.  They had reached an understanding, and I knew where both of them were coming from.  If somebody had asked me I’d probably have said I have to agree with Luis, it really didn’t make a lot of sense to have padding covering everything.

I imagined it in my own house.  It would make it hard to hurt myself, and I’d definitely done that plenty of times.  But it would also cover the TV.  Unacceptable.  Then Teeny Little Super Guy probably came on or something, and that would have been the end of that train of thought.  But somewhere deep in my head, in my internal sense of risk and security, I had been secretly educated.

Safety Isn’t Safe

I was going to title this post “A Lesson From Big Bird I Never Forgot.”  But that’s not true.  I forget it all the time.

For much of my life, I’ve been an exceedingly careful person.  There are certain consequences, though survivable, that I would not risk at all.  Even now I have a habit of avoiding things when I feel like they may trigger some circumstance I’m not prepared to deal with.  Certain phone calls, new endeavors and other to-do items are often left to fester while I find something to do that is more predictable and safe.  Of course, I usually suffer for it.

Total security is really quite impossible, but a very old and stubborn part of our brains is dedicated to keeping it the top priority.  By overvaluing security, it blows things out of proportion, making us nervous to even speak our minds for fear of rejection.  It can make us afraid to try a new hairdo, to dress differently, to take on a new line of work.  It’s just Mother Nature trying to keep us safe, but we have to just ignore it sometimes, lest we find ourselves in a padded room of our own.

I’m not a believer in psychics, but I’m going to go ahead and predict some of your future right now, whoever you are.

You will get hurt.

You will embarrass yourself.

You will wish you did things differently.

You will forget things that are too important to forget.

You will lose things you can’t afford to lose.

It can’t be helped, but it’s all okay.  Nobody doesn’t get hurt, but no pain lasts forever.

If I’m wrong, let me know.  In the mean time I’ll be trying to get the theme song to Teeny Little Super Guy out of my head.

R

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John July 20, 2009 at 6:29 am

This is why I like your writing. I love Sesame Street (watched it when I was much younger). I’ve learned so much and you’ve taught me even another lesson. There will always be risks in everything you do, but, as you said, it can’t be helped.

It’s more important to experience life than to endlessly calculate the risk. Thank you, David, for the great post.
.-= John´s last blog ..Be Yourself and Stop Emulating the Masses =-.

Lisis July 20, 2009 at 7:51 am

I love this post for two reasons in particular:

1. The idea that we (especially kids) learn more from the subtle, often repeated life lessons than we do from traditional, academic lessons. The best way to teach anything is by constant example.

2. The safety issue is huge for parents, who don’t want anything to happen to their kids, and for anyone in a relationship, who is so afraid of getting hurt they’d rather bubble wrap their heart than actually risk a little pain. Fact is, pain is a part of the process. We should’ve learned that in Kindergarten. :)
.-= Lisis´s last blog ..Adventure: Taking a Giant Leap of Faith =-.

Positively Present July 20, 2009 at 9:39 am

This is great! I haven’t seen Sesame Street in a long, long time, but reading this post brought back memories. I love how you’ve taken such an everyday thing — a kids TV show — and found some great life lessons in it!
.-= Positively Present´s last blog ..happiness doesn’t just happen =-.

Jay Schryer July 20, 2009 at 9:48 am

I have long believed that the best way to learn something is in a way so that you don’t even know you’ve been taught. Sesame Street was good at doing that, as you’ve pointed out here. The best kid’s shows are like that…and sometimes even the best adult shows, too. Not many people realize that almost every single episode of Star Trek had a moral lesson in it, for example.

And I LOVE this particular lesson…that pain is unavoidable. This is something that has been weighing on my mind heavily for the past week or so. Thank you for putting it into words!

Srinivas Rao July 20, 2009 at 11:01 am

I REALLY liked this post. I haven’t seen Sesame Street in 25 years and I don’t remember many of the incidents you mentioned, but I think you drew some incredible lessons from them. What I do remember thinking about Big bird is that he was goofy and always being ridiculous, but I guess the whole point was that he was really the embodiment of the mind of a child, naive to the ways of the world, and trying to change reality to have no bad things in it. It’s amazing to realize now that we can learn so much without our own knowledge that we’ve learned those things.
.-= Srinivas Rao´s last blog ..How to have a face to face confrontation with your inner voice =-.

Lori July 20, 2009 at 11:58 am

I love BIG BIRD! Also, thanks for predicting my future.

I have to admit, you’re spot on!
You will get hurt.
[A car ran into me while I was cycling–still amazed I’m alive.]

You will embarrass yourself.
[I fell face forward in 5th grade spring concert, skirt above head.]

You will wish you did things differently.
[Arguments with people I love; I can never take those back.]

You will forget things that are too important to forget.
[A goofy example, but my I left keys in the wrong state.]

You will lose things you can’t afford to lose.
[Time…]

Thanks for blessing us with your great writing, again. : )

David July 20, 2009 at 12:36 pm

John — I knew a lot of you would have been the right age to have watched Sesame Street as a kid. As far as I can tell there are two generations of people who read this blog: people who watched Sesame Street as a kid, and people who watched their kids watch Sesame Street (and some who are both!)

Lisis — Today’s security-obsessed society has given birth to the term “helicopter mom,” for parents who are constantly hovering. Reportedly these kids turn out dependent and afraid into adulthood. Getting hurt is not just okay, it’s important to our health.

Dani — It was a real trip down memory lane, researching this article. I hadn’t watched the Mr Hooper scene since I was a kid, and it really got to me.

Jay — I agree with you Jay. Maybe I was just a mistrustful student but as soon as it felt like a “lesson,” I began to resist. I probably learned the most when I didn’t realize it.

Srinivas — I was quite surprised to find out how much thought and research went into the writing of Sesame Street. I always thought it was just people fooling around with Muppets.

Lori — Thanks for blessing me with your comment, Lori. I’ll happily predict your future in extremely vague terms any time.

Nadia - Happy Lotus July 20, 2009 at 3:53 pm

Hey David,

If only NYC was as it is displayed on Sesame Street. However, you may see people dressed like that on the streets! :)

Seriously though, that show was one of my favorites and really was full of wisdom. I remembered some of those episodes that you mentioned. Thank you for the walk down memory lane.

As for security, there is no such thing and I am often humored that people think that there is such a thing. Life is always in movement and ultimately, all will be well but anything of value requires risk. It will always be that way. :)
.-= Nadia – Happy Lotus´s last blog ..Re-nun-ciation: Why I Didn’t Become A Nun =-.

Andrea Owen July 20, 2009 at 6:06 pm

Love this post; I started watching Sesame Street again now that my son is 2. I love it! But I wonder what the lesson behind Cookie Monster (which they dropped the “Monster” and only call him “Cookie” now) and Oscar the Grouch?
When I was little my mom used to tell me if I didn’t take a bath I would end up like Pigpen from the Peanuts gang. Remember the kid with the cloud of dirt and dust around him? Maybe that was Oscar’s lesson. ;)
.-= Andrea Owen´s last blog ..Redefining Beauty =-.

David July 20, 2009 at 6:11 pm

Nadia — Security is any animal’s most deeply-held need, but you’re right, we can never really ‘have’ it. It’s just an emotion, not a circumstance.

Andrea — I didn’t know they stripped cookie monster of half his name. That’s a shame. Children’s shows do suffer greatly from political correctness, it’s just the nature of the market.

Jillian July 20, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Hello David,

I have been perusing your posts and enjoy your perceptions on life and happiness. It is not easy to get to the root of depression and many of us battle with it as we try to live our lives.

In the small town that I live in, we have had two tragedies in the past few months. Two separate families lost their father/husband to suicide in these prevailing difficult times. It is very sad to be with the children who were left behind. Depression is a serious battle and I feel for the people that cannot find the proper help that they need to survive.

Anyway, I really don’t have anything profound to say but wanted to introduce myself and say hello.

Best, Jillian
.-= Jillian´s last blog ..A Summer Without Visiting Nantucket =-.

David July 21, 2009 at 9:15 am

Hello Jillian, thanks for introducing yourself. Raptitude now has several hundred regular readers, and only a fraction of them have actually contacted me or left a comment. I often wonder who they are.

I’m certainly no expert on depression or happiness for that matter, but I have learned a lot about what makes me happy and unhappy, and I don’t think people are all that different from each other. I just talk about what I’ve learned so far. I’m glad it is meaningful to you, thanks for saying so.

Evelyn Lim July 21, 2009 at 9:28 am

I used to love Sesame Street so much. It was a treat for me to watch it on saturdays. Now, I know that I have been “brainwashed” a number of life lessons. Thanks for highlighting them!
.-= Evelyn Lim´s last blog ..The Story Of The Wounded Child =-.

Josh Hanagarne July 22, 2009 at 8:07 pm

Brilliant stuff, David. It reminded me of how I first heard of the Christian Resurrection: My mom ran over our pets about once a week. We were standing out by a graveyard of popsicle-stick crosses and I asked her if I’d see my dogs in heaven.

“Probably,” she said, possibly hoping that there would be cars in heaven to run over them with.

David July 22, 2009 at 9:27 pm

Evelyn Lim — I remember as an older kid, 12 or so, staying home sick from school and happily watching in Sesame Street. There’s a certain comfort that comes with it that you lose as you grow up.

Josh — LOL what?!

Mark Foo | TheBigDreamer.com July 23, 2009 at 1:34 am

Hi David,

When you said, “you can’t go through life being afraid of getting hurt. It just isn’t realistic. It’s okay to get hurt once in a while. Things heal. Trying to make sure you can’t get hurt will stop you from doing the things you love.”

This really jumps out at me. Fear of getting hurt and the fear of failure are probably two of the greatest fears that are stopping people from realising their potential. We all have to learn that bad things are fine sometimes. We just have to learn from it and move on. Over-protection may in fact do more harm than good.

Thank you so much for this wonderful article.

Cheers~

Mark
.-= Mark Foo | TheBigDreamer.com´s last blog ..Your Best Insurance And Retirement Plan: Start A Business =-.

Nate St. Pierre July 24, 2009 at 9:27 pm

And I thought I was done crying for the day. Dang it, David.
.-= Nate St. Pierre´s last blog ..Help For Hurting Kids: Mary Beth Waters =-.

Jannie Funster July 25, 2009 at 1:41 am

For me it’s life as a Snuffleuffagus. No grown-up believes I’m real. :)
.-= Jannie Funster´s last blog ..Whoops… And The Future Of Blogging =-.

Bakari July 25, 2009 at 1:42 pm

This is the most in-depth analysis of Sesame Street I’ve encountered. Very interesting!
.-= Bakari´s last blog ..Who is Martin Seligman and what does he have to do with your Happiness? =-.

Deidre July 28, 2009 at 11:57 pm

I refuse to watch the video of Mr. Hooper…

Denial is sometimes the only way.

The day I don’t embarrass myself is the day to mark on the calendar…meh, I’d probably forget it was important anyway.
.-= Deidre´s last blog ..Environmental Wednesday: The Fashion Edition =-.

David Cain July 29, 2009 at 6:30 am

Deirdre — We all have our own ways of dealing with tragedy. You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do :)

Vanessa July 2, 2010 at 4:44 pm

<3 this post. Sesame Street was my first drug of choice. :) And, I couldn't agree more with the tuning out when you knew there was a lesson coming. It's so funny how 'we' are.

Tobi March 25, 2011 at 11:27 pm

Awesome post. I had to look up the scene on youtube since the one linked up there doesn’t work anymore (here’s a working link, as of when I posted it) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NjFbz6vGU8&feature=related I almost cried! It’s made me want to watch the show again if I catch it on TV. See what philosophical lessons they snuck in there, lolz.

pitbulls pet pictures dogs January 7, 2014 at 12:42 am

Today, while I was at work, my cousin stole my iPad and tested to see if it can survive a thirty foot drop,
just so she can be a youtube sensation. My iPad is now destroyed and she has 83 views.
I know this is completely off topic but I had
to share it with someone!

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