Sesame Workshop's Answer to Unkind Kids: More TV

According to a recent survey of parents and teachers, the world is becoming a more miserable place for kids by the day:

Fully 70% of parents find that the world is unkind to their kids. Among teachers, the figure is 86%, according to new research by Sesame Workshop, the New York-based non-profit behind Sesame Street.

The findings, out Thursday, come from a wide-ranging survey of 2,002 parents and 500 teachers. They hold a few surprises. Among them:

58% of teachers say most children today are disrespectful;

67% of parents say most children are disrespectful;

52% of teachers say being kind “is not a priority” to most people.

Researchers attribute the lack of kindness to two factors for which parents are directly responsible: Their child’s ability to be empathetic and to understand what it means to be a “good person.”

The real question is: How does this translate into practical parenting? According to the article, Sesame Workshop wants to provide tools through the web for parents to use to help teach these concepts to their kids. As great as PBS programming can be for young children, television is not going to teach a child how to be kind towards and considerate of others. Mainly because most parents use television in a rather unkind, inconsiderate way: As a babysitter to get their kid to shut up and get out of the way.

Kindness, empathy and goodness aren’t skills in and of themselves, but learned behaviors. Young children learn them the way they learn everything else, through imitation. If parents are stressed out and tight for time, chances are they aren’t going to behave very kindly or empathetically towards their own child. With the uptick in daycare environments, early childcare providers do not have the resources to devote the kind of individualized attention a child needs in order to feel good, let alone learn what it means to be good. Public education by its very nature functions on bureaucracy, not emotion. Why should we be surprised that today’s kids are disrespectful? Some of them have been disrespected since they were as little as 6 weeks old!

Sesame Workshop’s vice president of research and evaluation, Jennifer Kotler Clarke, described the non-profit’s new venture as another method of teaching children “what it might be like to walk in someone else’s shoes.” How are preschooler’s or elementary school-aged children supposed to prioritize walking in someone else’s shoes when they’re still trying to figure out how to walk in their own? Therein lies the root of the problem.

Proverbs instructs, “Raise a child in the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not depart from it.” Instead of teaching children how to walk down someone else’s path, we should be teaching them how to walk down their own. In Judaism, we repeat the same phrase at the Passover Seder each year: “Once we were slaves, now we are free.” It is only in remembering our own slavery that we can truly be empathetic toward another’s plight.

Children don’t learn to be empathetic by attempting to imitate someone else’s life, but by being fully equipped to overcome their own set of challenges. That equipping doesn’t take place in the midst of being shuttled from home to care facility, home to school, school to field trip, field trip to after care, and after care to bed. The proper equipping takes place in the moments when parents and educators take the time to connect with children in a truly meaningful and lasting way. Our children don’t need more television. They need more time with us.