Sesame Street took another step towards addressing real-life family situations when they unveiled their newest puppet Julia, a 4-year old girl who suffers from autism. But before Julia, the Sesame Workshop introduced Alex, a puppet with an incarcerated father. The idea of a puppet committing a felony? Funny. The fact that 1 in 14 U.S. children have a parent in jail. Not so funny. In fact, 5 million American kids have had at least one parent in prison at one point in their life, from birth through age 17.
Child Trends is the nation’s leading nonprofit research organization on improving children’s lives. They also happen to be the leading experts on families with an incarcerated parent. Their 2015 study, conducted by David Murphey and P. Mae Cooper, revealed the emotional trauma these kids suffer is the same as those who’ve dealt with the death of a parent, divorce, separation, and physical abuse. Kids with incarcerated parents are also more likely to have trouble with academics and face a social stigma.
“I think Sesame Street‘s character is a positive development,” says Murphey, director of the Child Trends databank. “It’s important to normalize the experience for them. They need to know that they’re not alone. An incarcerated parent is typically an unspoken topic and children feel a lot of shame around it.”
Like Julia, Alex is directly speaking to both the millions of kids with parents in jail, or those who don’t understand the impact on their peers. Murphey suggests children should continually express their feelings to alleviate the separation. And if it’s a safe environment for the child, they should stay connected with the parent. “In most cases, children will benefit from continuing their relationship with the parent with visits,” he says. “Also a family member who can provide a safe haven and some stability for the child can go a long way in helping them cope.”
Currently, Alex is not in the regular rotation of Sesame Street characters. He’s the sole focus of Sesame Workshop’s Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration, a resource website for families. The site includes original videos with Alex where he discusses his situation and feelings. There are also bilingual (English/Spanish) tools to comfort young children throughout their parent’s incarceration, which include storybooks, advice on how to cope, and activities.
As Sesame Street normalizes the issue, Murphey says mass incarceration in the U.S. is finally declining. “What I’ve seen are signs that recognize the negative effects of large incarceration numbers in our society. The fallout of our prison population has had collateral effects on children and communities.”