Why My Toddler Doesn’t Watch Sesame Street

I remember, when I was 3 or 4 years old, sitting in front of the television watching the test pattern waiting for my local public television station to begin its broadcast day.  I liked the pretty colored stripes.  Finally they would disappear, the station information would be displayed along with a drawing of a scissor-tailed flycatcher (the state bird), and an authoritative voice would announce, “This is OETA.  Public television for all of Oklahoma.”  Then I would hear that cheerful song about sweeping the clouds away and going where the air is sweet, and for the next hour my television would show me a wonderful world in which fuzzy monsters and real people of all colors live side-by-side in a place where you can find a friend just by stepping out of the house.

My daughter Lydia is 18 months old and has never seen an episode of “Sesame Street”.  Why do I deprive her of this experience I loved so much??  There are two reasons.

One is that children under 2 years old should not watch any television at all.  The American Academy of Pediatrics still says this and has updated its statement to include the use of computers and tablets–no screen-time for toddlers.  I know, a lot of my parenting peers think this is simply impossible.  I agree that it’s impossible to avoid any screen exposure at all, in a world where electronic screens are incorporated into many public places and most adults are constantly poking some kind of PocketFox.  (Just yesterday, I was in a hospital elevator with a wall-mounted screen relentlessly playing hospital publicity videos!)  Still, it’s worth the effort to save our babies’ eyes and hearts and brains by keeping them away from the screens as much as we can and certainly not encouraging them to watch TV.  I’ve explained how we kept our first child off the screens until he was 2 and phased it in carefully after that.

Everybody told me it would be harder with the second child.  Yes, it is, because her big brother loves to play computer games, and our computer is in the living room.  It’s true that Lydia sometimes toddles over to watch what he is doing, so she’s probably had more total screen-time than he had by this age.  But when we rearranged before she was born, we placed our L-shaped computer desk such that the screen is turned 45 degrees toward the wall, instead of facing the center of the room; that makes it less eye-catching.  Our television set faces the couch, but we hardly ever watch it when Lydia’s awake.  Neither parent has a smartphone, so she’s not seeing a screen while we’re holding her.  I try to keep my iPad out of her sight; if she climbs into my lap while I’m using it, I finish up as quickly as I can.  Most importantly, we never turn on a video for her or let her play with the iPad herself.

But “Sesame Street” is so sweet and charming and a rich source of cultural references in our family and the wider society!  As I said in my previous article:

But then, when I was 7 months pregnant, an odd sound made by the elevator at work reminded me of the “Rubber Ducky” song from “Sesame Street”, and I suddenly felt devastated–how could I deprive my child of the joy of knowing Ernie and Big Bird and…and LOVABLE FURRY GROVER?!

Well, here’s what we learned when raising Nicholas: Not watching “Sesame Street” doesn’t mean having no experience of those fun characters, and when you are already familiar with the characters and then find out that they can be seen on TV, it’s a huge thrill!!!  I’m not at all claiming my toddler is forbidden any awareness of “Sesame Street”:

  • Before she was born, I covered a couple of cardboard boxes with wrapping paper that depicts some of the “Sesame Street” Muppets, to store some of her small items.  Lydia noticed these by six months old and began smiling at them, then waving at them, and now she points to Elmo and Ernie as she says their names.
  • We have two dozen 45rpm records of “Sesame Street” songs from my partner Daniel’s childhood.  We picked up a few “Sesame Street” LPs at the incomparable Jerry’s Records in our neighborhood.  Nicholas at almost 11 years old still enjoys these songs, so Lydia hears them often.
  •  We have several picture books of Sesame Street stories, including the current favorite Big Bird Brings Spring to Sesame Street, which no acculturated adult can read aloud without doing the proper voice for The Count–so Lydia now says, “Ah hah hah!” whenever she sees a picture of The Count, or whenever someone is counting something, or sometimes just because. 🙂
  • Nicholas has hand puppets of Bert and Ernie, which live up in his room, but he entertains Lydia with them sometimes.
  • She owns at least one garment depicting Elmo.
  • She’s been begging me to sing “la ee da” (“What’s the Name of That Song?”) ever since it sprang to my mind when I was trying to distract her from a diaper change.

We enjoy sharing all this stuff with her, but we’re purposely protecting her innocence of the “real, live” existence of Muppets until she’s old enough to find it an exciting revelation (instead of just something she’s been used to since she was born).  It worked beautifully with Nicholas, who was thrilled out of his seat by seeing Cookie Monster on TV when he was 2.  We want a moment like that for Lydia.

My uncle gave Nicholas a DVD set of the first 10 seasons of “Sesame Street” for his third birthday.  Our budding cultural critic strongly believes that those early episodes were better than the ones that are shown on TV today–although the current “Sesame Street” is still one of the best children’s programs–and his parents agree, so we think we’ll start Lydia off with the classics.  Maybe her first “Sesame Street” will be the very first one made…but then again, that episode from 1976 is so good….

Saving “Sesame Street” viewing until 2 years old works for me!

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3 thoughts on “Why My Toddler Doesn’t Watch Sesame Street

    • I thought I had heard of a recent revision, but neither Google nor the search on the AAP’s site found it for me. Thanks for the link! I think their new policy provides some great advice on how to set limits and provide guidance for kids who are using digital media.

      However, “Today, more than 30% of U.S. children first play with a mobile device when they still are in diapers,” doesn’t mean any of the science has changed. There is still no good reason for children under 2 to have screen-time, and there are still some reasons not to. Just because more people are allowing more screen-time for younger kids doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

      I understand changing the wording to “discourage” so that it seems feasible to live in the real world with your child–for example, if I’d had Lydia with me in that hospital I mentioned, I wouldn’t have to take the stairs to prevent her from looking at that screen for two minutes–but with very young children, it is far easier to give a consistent message, “This is not for you.” than to allow something some of the time but try to set some limits so you can say you’re “discouraging” it. In our experience with Nicholas, a child has to be at least 2 and really more like 3 years old before he understands ideas like, “You can watch 3 shows each day.”

      I mean, we should “discourage” toddlers from drinking coffee, right? A little bit might not do any noticeable harm, but caffeine is an addictive, psychoactive drug; it’s not for children. Lydia has been fascinated by coffee for months–“gawf fee” was one of her first 10 words, said whenever she noted the presence of a mug or coffeemaker–but whenever she reached for it, we said, “Coffee is NOT for you.” Our church has a weekly bagel breakfast which my kids and I attend. Lydia sits in my lap until she’s done eating and gets down to play. One week, I had a sore jaw, so the bagel was too chewy for me and I was dunking it in my coffee. Lydia is just at the stage where she really loves dipping food, so she wanted to do this, too, and I let her. I figured she would ingest maybe a tablespoon of coffee, no big deal. But now she’s got the idea that WHENEVER I’m drinking coffee, she ought to be able to get in my lap and dunk food in it! It’s a much bigger struggle now, and much more tempting to give in and let her do it just to reduce the hassle in this particular moment, than it would be if I had held firm about not letting her have any ever until she’s old enough.

  1. Pingback: The X, Y, Z Method of Child Discipline | The Earthling's Handbook

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