6 Ways Sesame Street Taught Me How To Be A Decent Human

I missed the diversity and acceptance of being surrounded by other cultures, so I was glad to be able to watch "Sesame Street" and feel that sense of belonging.
Publish date:
January 16, 2014
childhood, TV, sesame street, life lessons

Remember when you first watched Sesame Street?

It seems like the show has been around forever, but Sesame Street was actually pitched in 1968 as a way to give economically disadvantaged children a chance to be as prepared for school as their middle-class peers.

Sesame Street is broadcast around the world, in different languages, and uses special Muppets to tackle issues particular to the region the show is playing to. There is an HIV-positive Muppet named Kali in the South African and Nigerian productions of the show who educates kids, and their parents, about the virus and the larger issues surrounding it. The French Sesame Street is “1, rue Sésame,” which I find delightful.

A documentary called “The World According To Sesame Street” that came out in 2007, examines the influence of the long-running show and its 20 or so international productions. The opening scene of that film is heartbreaking. Young, shoeless children in tattered clothes covering their dirty bodies collect water from a murky river and take it to their slum.

Once inside, the children turn on a 10-inch television set, "Sesame Street" starts, and their beautiful dirt-speckled faces light up with glee.

Sesame Street has always been a pioneer among shows in its genre, using media as a means to provide supplementary education to children and help them reach their highest potential. Check out this amazing Sesame Street video from 1969 that shows a group of kids playing “Following the Leader.” The leader leads his friends right into what looks like a dangerous construction site, and they frolic around like it’s the best playground on earth. (The good stuff starts around 1:16.)

This was the “Over! Under! Through!” game Tina Fey mentions in “Bossypants,” and she compares the child’s play to dealing with difficult people in our careers.

“I suggest you model your strategy after the old Sesame Street film piece "Over! Under! Through!" writes Tina. “Don't waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions. Go "Over! Under! Through!" and opinions will change organically when you're the boss. Or they won't. Who cares?”

She’s giving us pearls right there; pearls she learned from Sesame Street.

I was an 80s baby and I watched so much TV that sometimes I thought it was my really fun babysitter. Maybe I paid way too much attention to television, but I was captivated by it, as many young children are. I’m largely unfamiliar with today’s children’s television landscape, save for "Dora the Explorer," which makes me happy, and "Angry Birds," which makes me quite sad, but I’m happy "Sesame Street" is still helping kids find their way. (But it was way better when we were kids, right?)

To say "Sesame Street" taught me everything I know would be an insult to my parents and the Ontario Board of Education. (Although a PBS education would have been better than nothing, I say). I started reading pretty young, and I don’t think anything can replace a book to ignite and expand a child’s imagination, but Sesame Street did have a strong hand in shaping my young mind and complementing the education I was receiving.

For those of us who watched the show, the entire cast of Muppets and humans played their part into molding us into the decent human beings we are now. And if you didn’t like the show, or like Marci, have a very real fear of Muppets, you might disagree with everything I’m about to say. And that’s OK. Sesame Street taught me to respect everyone’s opinion.

Six Ways Sesame Street Taught Us To Be Decent Humans

1) Education

I am not a parent, and I try to reserve judgment of parenting techniques and failures because I have not done it myself. Plus, my mom always says, “If you spit in the sky, it’ll land on your face” as a way to discourage childless people who make statements like, “Well, I for one will never let MY kids go to bed without brushing their teeth.”

What I DO know is that most parents have a lot to deal with, between working and caring for their kids, and sometimes they just don’t have time to worry about educating them in the scholarly sense, too. This is why "Sesame Street" is brilliant. Through stories, playful bits, and songs, they taught me how to count, say the alphabet, and most importantly, sing!

You might be thinking, “How does counting make you a decent human?” and I like to think of it as a ripple effect. The show prepared me for learning, the structure of a classroom education, and listening to a lesson, which doesn’t always come naturally to children. Knowing how to count saved my ass in first grade math, let me tell you, and I’ve been grateful ever since.

Johnny Cash Sings A Countin’ Song

Is there anything cooler than being able to say: “Johnny Cash taught me how to count”? No. No there isn’t.

2) Friendship

The ability to share, and be patient and kind to others are attractive qualities we look for in friends as children. From what I remember, Bert and Ernie exhibited some of the best examples of friendship on the show. Sure, they’d have roommate beefs over sharing things and being messy, and Ernie would often get on Bert’s nerves with his exhausting antics, but they always worked it out.

I probably identified with Bert as a child because of my unibrow, but as an adult, I appreciate him and Ernie for teaching us about the importance of having, and being, a true friend.

Messy Ernie Sings “That’s What Friend’s Are For” To A Tired Bert

3) Acceptance

Since its inception, "Sesame Street" has been completely racially integrated. It’s so important for kids to be able to emotionally identify with the characters they see, both human and Muppet, and this show was way ahead of it’s time in knowing that skin color, religion, creed, and ethnicity mean little to a child. In fact, the more diversity they are exposed to, the better off they are.

My early education started in a multicultural area of Toronto, and the human characters on the show mirrored a lot of my friends and playmates, but I was shocked when we moved to Calgary, which was very Anglo-Saxon at the time. I missed the diversity and acceptance of being surrounded by other cultures, so I was glad to be able to watch "Sesame Street" and feel that sense of belonging.

"Sesame Street" promoted love and acceptance of everyone.

Billy Joel and Marlee Matlin sing “Just The Way You Are” to Oscar

4) Self Love

In addition to promoting acceptance of others, "Sesame Street" was big on encouraging us to love and respect ourselves. I had severe asthma as a kid, which I was embarrassed about, and "Sesame Street" made me feel like I was unique and special and could make the best of my situation and maybe one day become an Olympic sprinter. I’m not an Olympian, but I do love myself, so it all worked out.

Ray Charles Sings Believe In Yourself With Elmo

5) Dealing With Feelings

Being a kid can be hard. Sometimes things aren’t fair. Sometimes parents suck. Sometimes living situations suck. "Sesame Street" always reached out to its loneliest and maybe most troubled audience members, and tried to comfort them. Learning that you are not alone in your pain, especially as a child, can really make all the difference.

Laughter turns into tears and back again A LOT for kids. And guess what: for adults, too. Sometimes I think I wouldn’t have half the issues I do if I only expressed myself -- and my emotions -- when I feel the urge to. It’s funny how we sometimes forget or repress the lessons we learn in childhood.

REM and the B52s Sing Furry Happy Monsters

This video of REM jamming with a bunch of bipolar monster Muppets is a pretty groovy way to encourage kids to feel their feelings. I dare you to not have fun while watching it.

6) Empathy

More than simply teaching us right from wrong, "Sesame Street" was always brilliant about getting its young viewers to understand and have compassion for different characters and the situations they found themselves in.

Some of my first encounters with feeling someone else’s feelings involved my favorites Oscar the Grouch and Kermit the Frog. It isn’t easy being green, guys.

James Gandolfini Talks About Feeling Scared

Who better to teach kids about empathy than Tony Soprano himself? Here James Gandolfini comforts Zoe, who is scared, by relating to her and telling her the things that he is scared of. She returns the favor when one of those things strolls by.

What else did Sesame Street teach you about being a decent human?