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Illustration by Michelle Budge, Deseret News

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Perspective: You can’t trust ‘Sesame Street’ anymore to educate your children

Children’s media is addressing topics with presentations that aren’t just educational; they’re designed to guide your child’s moral compass in a direction of the program’s choosing

Growing up, I’m not sure that my mother would have been able to shower and get ready for work were it not for Sesame Street “babysitting” me for a few minutes. It was a beloved part of my day and a critical part of hers; without the show, she’d have been at a loss about how to safely keep me occupied long enough to get us out the door. I fondly remember the letters and numbers of the day, the celebrity guest stars, and the cantankerous Cookie Monster stealing my heart.

When I was creating my own baby registry, I added a DVD player and seasons of all the old shows I grew up with, including “Sesame Street.” It wasn’t just nostalgia driving my desire to have the physical copies of these shows; my husband and I had already witnessed a shift in the purpose and direction of contemporary children's media over the past decade, and it wasn’t a journey I wanted to take my kids on.

But the shifts keep coming. Last month, “Sesame Street” marked Pride Month by showing a type of family that has never been seen in the 51-year history of the iconic children’s television show. According to TODAY:

The show shared an episode last week called “Family Day” that features a married gay couple of two dads with their daughter. A dad named Frank, played by Alex Weisman, and a dad named Dave, played by Chris Costa, along with their daughter Mia, played by Olivia Perez, join the neighborhood family that surprises Big Bird at a party.

A character in the episode observes that “all of our families are so different.”

“There’s all kinds of different families,” Frank says. “But what makes us a family is that we love each other.” ...

“Sesame Street” has addressed a range of social issues in recent years, including addiction, incarceration, race, homelessness and autism.

I don’t particularly care if “Sesame Street” features episodes with two dads; we have discussed with our children the different family makeups around us. What makes this episode — and the entire trend in children’s media — troublesome is the assumption that it is up to a media company to introduce topics ranging from addiction to same-sex marriage on their terms and that these topics should be presented to toddler-aged children watching programming like “Sesame Street.”

When played out in this way, the presentation isn’t just designed to be educational and informative; it’s meant as a symbol of virtue. The intention with episodes of this nature, especially launched during Pride Month, isn’t merely inclusion — it’s promotion.

There are plenty of families for whom this celebration is welcome and desired. And there are many for whom it’s not welcome. Still more simply want educational shows to stick to letters, numbers and colors.

In modern America, though, it seems that isn’t educational enough. The teaching has expanded to include not just an understanding of morality, but the acceptance of a specific moral orthodoxy.

Those in charge of messaging and programming children’s media have positioned themselves as arbiters of our children’s moral compass. And that Soviet-style demand for a universal, well-curated set of beliefs from a particular coastal lens should concern all parents — not just those with religious or personal beliefs that make them uncomfortable with a particular episode of “Sesame Street” aired during Pride Month.

Parents should take note: The aim of children’s media is no longer just to provide free, education-minded babysitting while you get ready for work. Parents who want to remain the guiding force in their kids’ moral upbringing should opt-out of kids’ media produced in the last decade or so and invest in some vintage “Sesame Street.” The screen may not be in HD and the latest celebrity guest stars may be dated, but at least you know you can walk out of the room for a quick shower.

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