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I’m Unsuitable

The Guideposts senior editor shares his views on Sesame Street.

At the risk of sounding like a crank I have to say that when it comes to Sesame Street the world has taken a decided turn for the worse.

Like practically every other child in America in the 1970s I grew up watching Sesame Street. Recently my mom bought a DVD of classic episodes for my daughter Frances to watch. We rigged up a laptop in the living room (we don’t own a television) and slipped in the DVD.

A warning appeared on the screen: “These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.”

Excuse me? My wife Kate and I looked at each other. Not suitable for today’s preschool child? Sesame Street? If Sesame Street isn’t suitable for today’s preschool child, what is?

Actually, I’m by no means the first person to notice this inexplicable admonition. Virginia Heffernan, a tart-tongued television critic for the New York Times poked fun at it here. NPR noticed it here. A mom who blogs for AOL lamented it here.

Virginia Heffernan went on to notice all the ways today’s Sesame Street apparently is suitable for kids. It’s happier. Cleaner. More sparkly. No more ghetto street. No more junk food (Cookie Monster eats vegetables). There’s a little fairy muppet, Abby Cadabby, designed specifically to compete with Disney. (Funny, since Sesame Street creator Jim Henson’s Muppets were sold after his death to the Walt Disney Company.)

I had a different thought after watching a few episodes with my daughter Frances. The main difference between then and now as far as I can tell? Old Sesame Street is slow. Glacially slow by today’s media standards. So slow it’s almost like…well I’ll get to that in a minute.

Here are some of my favorite segments from the old episodes, many of which I remembered the instant I saw them:

A woodworker makes a toy airplane while music plays. Two minutes. No words.

Construction workers build a house from foundation to roof. One minute, 39 seconds. No words.

Two girls color butterflies with crayons. We see how crayons are made in the factory. Two minutes. No words.

A man sings a blues song about trash while New York City garbage men do their jobs. Two minutes.

A Chinese-American boy explains how his father makes noodles. One minute, 41 seconds.

Big Bird visits a Puerto Rican family’s house and garden in East Harlem. Three minutes.

One and a half minutes, two minutes, three minutes. Doesn’t sound like much. But on television those are acres of time. Extraordinary amounts of time to expect children to sit still watching the same thing. Especially with no words. No flash graphics. No Disney songs. None of the sugary, amphetamine-like junk that comprises children’s television today, all designed to keep kids watching, watching, watching, long enough to pack in the product placements and squeeze tiny bodies and minds to the last penny.

That’s what’s different about old Sesame Street, and I suppose that’s what makes it unsuitable for young viewers. By today’s standards it’s positively un-American. It doesn’t attempt to sell anything. It doesn’t try to hook anyone on anything. Its goals: to teach and to recreate to the extent television can the rhythms and joys of ordinary life.

I am beyond sad that in the 30 years since I watched Sesame Street those goals have come to seem so naïve or even, from a certain perspective, unsuitable for children. Every now and then I wonder if Kate and I are asking for trouble raising our kids with no TV. The kids will get pummeled at school, I worry. They’ll be hopelessly clueless about the culture around them.

I think it’s worth the risk. I’ll take my wooden airplanes and crayon factories any day. What a relief to be unsuitable.

Jim Hinch is a senior editor at GUIDEPOSTS. Reach him at jhinch@guideposts.org.

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