While my son was napping, I was trying to think of ways that I can expose him to his South African culture while living in the United States. Being a natural researcher of all things education, I started my search to find a source that checked all of the boxes that I was looking for my South African son. It would help preserve his culture and help my husband and I understand his culture. Sesame Street. Yes! Sesame Street. It finally occurred to me that throughout my 39 years of living, programs like Sesame Street helped me with various cultural, social, and academic topics. As a child, it helped me to count and learn how to respect differences. As an adult, who is now a teacher, it helped me to teach my students various academic and social issues that will help expose them to their present world. One of the topics that Sesame Street tackled was adoption. Not only did they expose storylines with adoptions, but they also provided various resources for parents who adopted transculturally.
History of Sesame Street
The history of Sesame Street began during the Civil Rights movement and the war on poverty. Since its inception in 1966 Sesame Street has exposed different social issues in a way that is thoughtful and engaging for a child. The founders Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrissett wanted to use television to prepare children for school. At the time, universal preschool was not an option for parents and it was tough to educate children at home. Head Start began in 1965, but it still was and still is not an option for all families. Parents were required to pay for preschool. The founders of Sesame Street recruited educational advisors, child psychologists, television producers, and other artists to help them come up with thoughtful and safe programming for children that tackled complex topics such as racism, HIV, divorce, and even parents in the military. These topics bring a real-world element to children’s television and it is something that revolutionized children’s TV. When I was young, I remember that I wanted to learn how to tie my shoes and I was embarrassed that I could not tie them. My mother bought me a VHS tape of my favorite Sesame Street episode and while watching one day, I noticed that they had a segment for tying shoes. I watched that segment over and over again until I could tie my shoes. This showed the power and the influence that Sesame Street had over my life then as a 7-year-old kid.
Domestic Adoption: The Robinsons adopt Miles
While real-world topics are insightful and to have them as a backdrop to the show was engaging for me, the one topic that always kept my attention was their education on adoption. Their message about adoption was always clear. 1). Adoption does exist. 2). Adoption is family and “real”. 3). Adoption brings in the various cultures in the family and changes the dynamic of the family. The start of adoption topics began in 1985 with the Robinsons.
I remembered that I was tuned in at my babysitter’s house and I watched as the topic of adoption was discussed through two long-time characters on the show that were adopting. As a child, I remember watching an episode of a couple named Susan and Gordon Robinson adopting their child, Miles. In the article The Robinson Family, this idea came from Big Bird’s puppeteer and his wife Debra. The two suggested to their producer that they should introduce the topic of infertility and have Susan and Gordon adopt a child named Miles. I do not remember how they touched on infertility, but I do remember when Miles became a part of their family. It is a moment in time that is etched in my memory. It was amazing watching Miles grow up throughout the years on Sesame Street with his parents. The fact that I could remember this over 30 years later while adopting my own child shows the effectiveness of Sesame Street with the initial launching of the topic.
International Adoption: Gina Adopts Marco
While doing research into the connection between Sesame Street and adoption, I found that just as they made a special episode for the Robinson adoption, they made another one for another character as well. This time it was a single mother. In 2006, Sesame Street revisited the issue of adoption through the character Gina, the veterinarian at Sesame Street. Gina adopted Marco from Guatemala as a baby. With the addition of Marco, Sesame writers addressed issues of international adoption and non-traditional families. The executive producer of the show at the time, Carol-Lynn Parente said: “Statistics show that almost a third of children are being raised in single-parent households, so we felt it was important to reflect this growing family trend on our ‘Street’. By using an adoption storyline to represent the single-family household, it also gives us a chance to model yet another definition of what a family is.”
Gina starts the episode with the statement “There’s a baby who needs love and caring for, and I want to be the person to provide those things.” She reaches out to Maria and Rosita to help her with learning Spanish and using them as a tool for culture exposure for baby Marco. And of course, all of the residents of Sesame Street were so happy for her. In the episode, they are intentional in saying that Marco will learn Spanish and that Gina wants to expose him to as much of his culture as she can. Maria goes to Guatemala with her to help her translate and to pick up Marco to bring him back to Sesame Street. I watched the episode and was filled with joy as an adoptive parent at how thoughtful and intentional they were in telling the story of adopting Marco.
Foster Care Adoption: Muppet Karli
In 2019, Sesame Street in Communities is a nationwide initiative to support parents, caregivers, and community providers in their efforts to give all children, especially the most vulnerable, a strong and healthy start. Sesame Street in Communities partners with different cities with different programs in the country to combat various issues that impact children every day. Sesame Street decided to work towards launching a new foster care initiative.
As a teacher, I’ve encountered students that are foster students. They are coming from a new school and they feel left out of the classroom community. As teachers, we try to find resources that would address their situation directly in a manner that is appropriate for children. Through videos, a storybook, printables, and interactive activities, Sesame Street provided the children Karli, a new muppet in foster care. In the video, “A Place for You” the foster daughter Karli feels like she does not have a place at the dinner table with her foster parents. Elmo (the red muppet) is coming over for dinner and there is a place for everyone, but Karli. Karli becomes really upset and then Elmo asks the parents “why is Karli upset”? Karli’s foster parents explain to Elmo about Karli’s situation with her biological mother. Karli’s foster parents explain that sometimes “mommies and daddies need help taking care of their children.” She goes on to explain that is where foster parents or “for now” parents come in. They share a touching song that shares with them that they want her there. I nearly teared up when they repeated the line, “You are safe, you are strong, there is a place for you here — you belong.”
This 4-minute video moved me. I was so touched by the thoughtful words that were shared with Karli from the foster parents. I loved the age-appropriate language and the love that was shared in the video. I highly recommend this video as well as the other resources provided.
Resource for Transcultural Adoption
The popularity of Sesame Street in the United States sparked an interest in other countries around the world. I love that it was one of the things on television that connected children around the world. While some of the characters were still the same, the cultural backgrounds of the shows were different. The cultural background reflects the cultural sensitivities of each country. This Sesame Street international model began in Brazil and Mexico in 1972. This model was very helpful to a parent of a small child who is internationally adopted.
One day, I was searching through Youtube to find resources that shared with my son elements of his South African culture. I wanted to make sure that he was familiar with different Zulu phrases and elements of South Africa. As I was looking through some YouTube clips, I encountered Takalani Sesame with a picture of Elmo and other characters. I watched a clip and it was just what I wanted. It was that day that I learned that for a parent that is raising a child transculturally, Sesame Street is a wonderful resource.
Takalani Sesame was created twenty years ago and their focus is to explore the world with play. On the Takalani Sesame site, it says that their mission is to “demonstrate the power of ubuntu, celebrating similarities and differences by showing kindness, respect, sharing and caring in ways to show that umntu ngumntu ngabantu (you are because we are)”. While observing our son watch the show, he started to smile and his face was transfixed as if he was transported to something familiar. In the first episode that we watched they were highlighting soccer or futbol as a popular sport. They had famous soccer players from South Africa and they also highlighted a Granny soccer team in Soweto. Once I saw the various soccer players, I googled them and this helped me expose our son to famous South Africans. While I was googling the soccer player, my son commented “Mommy, that’s Moshe’”. It seemed to be a favorite memory from South Africa because we honestly did not know about Moshe until he appeared on the screen. Moshe is a character that is exclusive to Takalani Sesame. My husband comments that he is the equivalent of Big Bird. He is the one that connects everyone together and everyone loves him. Moshe is the one that continually brings peace to a situation.
Just like Sesame Street for me created a feeling of familiarity and comfort, I believe it brings that to our son. While he is too young to articulate South Africa, I believe that the show reminds him of the culture that he experienced there for 3 years. While for other children it may bring sadness, for our son it brings comfort. I feel this because he becomes deeply engaged, he recalls many of Moshe’s actions and sayings like “Neh” and smiles while hearing his accent. Additionally, he recalls many of the other characters like Kami and ZuZu. While on the Sesame Street website there are different clips for international viewers to watch, the full episodes are limited and they are older and not current. Regardless, it gives him that exposure to South African culture so that it is not foreign for him. We want him to have a healthy overall memory and not one that is told to him.
Also, we can pick up on cultural icons in South Africa so that we can expose them to more current and famous South Africans. Just as you can see famous stars like Usher and Will. I. Am singing a song on Sesame Street, in South Africa you can find Mafikizolo and Loyiso Bala. We now listen to a lot of Mafikizolo in our home. I do not think we would have known about them had it been for Takalani Sesame.
My Hope for Sesame Street in the Future
Through the stories of the humans and the muppets, Sesame Street effortlessly tackles so many social issues that are happening in the world. I believe this is because at the core, Sesame Street was created to educate small children. Adoption is not a topic that is off-limits for children, because it is a part of the world around them. The show is sometimes the exposure that small children need to various social issues or developmentally explains what is happening to them and supports them. As Sesame Street continues to evolve, I look forward to seeing the resources that Sesame Street continues to create for children.