Should you tell your infant how to get to "Sesame Street"?

New DVDs for the under-2 set spark debate about tots and the tube.


Lynn Harris
March 22, 2006 8:25PM (UTC)

Today's Boston Globe reports that a new DVD series for babies and parents has stirred up some controversy, which, refreshingly, is not about whether one of the puppets appears to be gay. The series, geared for babies age 6 months to 2 years, is titled "Sesame Beginnings," which to me sounds like code for "overpriced bagel." According to the Globe, it features "baby Big Bird, Elmo, and other Muppets as well as real-life babies and parents doing such things as getting dressed, singing, dancing, and playing," and it is designed to "help parents learn how to best interact with their children's temperaments." The DVDs are a collaboration between Sesame Workshop and -- in its first commercial venture -- Zero to Three, a nonprofit whose mission is "to support the healthy development and well-being of infants, toddlers, and their families."

Turns out, however, that not everyone regards this partnership as a "Sesame Street"-worthy example of "cooperation." The Globe reports, for example, that psychologist Susan Linn, cofounder of the Boston-based watchdog group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, accused Zero to Three of "selling out."

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"To me, this is just heartbreaking," Linn told the Globe. "If they have something to say to parents, why didn't they just produce a video intended only for parents? Why do they have to involve the babies at all?"

Pediatrician Donald Shifrin, spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, noted that "having the imprimatur of an organization like Zero to Three on a DVD may well be the tipping point for parents who would have been inclined to resist the pull of media for young children. This may be what pushes them over the fence, to say, 'Well, it must be good.' The fact that it's this organization, that's a disappointment." Shifrin says he stands by his group's 1999 recommendation discouraging parents from letting kids under age 2 watch the tube.

Such ire, it should be noted, is directed only at Zero to Three, not Sesame Workshop.

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The Globe also reports that early exposure to "screens," as in TV, "has been linked to diminished deductive reasoning."

"Knowing that even as a possibility, why put a child in front of a screen at all?" asked Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

The DVDs' defenders say critics are being grouches. Zero to Three's executive director, Matthew Melmed, cited stats showing that 68 percent of children under 6, including babies as young as 6 months, spend an average of two hours a day in front of a television. "The reality is that the current generation of parents, millions and millions of them, view media as a positive tool," Melmed told the Globe. (Hello, Baby Einstein.) "They put their babies in front of it despite advice to the contrary. We wanted to meet parents in that reality." In other words -- along the lines of the given-that-they're-doing-it argument for needle exchange -- he sees "Sesame Beginnings," basically, as an alternative to crap.

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"We're not advocating passive viewing of plopping a child in front of this," adds Rosemarie Truglio, vice president of education and research for Sesame Workshop. "Nothing currently designed for children under 2 in video content was designed to bring the adult viewer into the viewing experience. That's what makes 'Sesame Beginnings' unique."

Nerdy autobiographical note in Sesame/TV's defense: My parents (who banned all television save Mister Rogers and the Electric Company, and possibly Masterpiece Theatre) insist that it was specifically "Sesame Street" that taught me to read, pre-age 3.

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What do you think? Is it unfair to lump smarty-pants interactive TV in with plopping your child in front of "Nip/Tuck" while you mix margaritas and play gin? Is anything OK as long as it's "Sesame" related? Or should parents who want to learn to interact with their kids ... interact with their kids?


Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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