Sunday, March 21, 2010

How To Get To Sesame Street

I just started following @Sesamestreet on Twitter. (Oh, and "Happy Birthday!" to Twitter.)

Yes, Sesame Street. Why not? I love Sesame Street. It's nice to see a Big Bird tweet among the barrage of @cnnbrk, @ bbcworld, @reuters, @huffingtonpost tweets that usually greet me. So while all the news organizations are busy 'breaking' health care reform deal right now (not that this is not great news), I have this big grin on my face sitting in Starbucks, reading Big Bird's post from yesterday: "Know what's as big as Snuffy but doesn't weigh anything? His shadow. Ha!"

I grew up watching Sesame Street. It was a playmate and a friend. It was my first view of a world where everyone was friends, and people (and muppets) came in all colors and shapes and sizes. And it didn't matter. In fact, it was wonderful. Growing up on a tiny island little more than a dot on the world map, Sesame Street was the first global village I knew. Way before computers, emails, Facebook and Twitter, Sesame Street was the social networking channel of those times. The best part was, it was for kids.

Like all childhood playmates, Sesame Street became a distant memory at the back of my mind when I went through the growing years and stages. In high school, I was one of the first groups of students in the computer club.

Anyone remembers this?
I used one of these, or its younger cousin.

Then, in college there was 'live' chatting over the university's intranet, and at work, email became the preferred mode of communication. Some years back, Friendster, My Space, and then Facebook took cyber connection to new realms. Well, we all know who won that popularity contest.

I reconnected with Sesame Street again when I had kids. At 18 months, Amon learned the alphabets from Big Bird, and counted to 20 with Ernie. At two-and-a-half, he was thrilled when Grover gave him a big hug at the 'meet-and-greet' session at Sesame Place in PA (yes, it's a theme park and you can watch Elmo's World 'live' there!). It was Halloween and he was in a Thomas the Tank Engine costume. He was beaming like a beacon when the hayride tractor driver told him he had a great costume, and Zoe gave him a little pat on the head.

For Amon and now, Ariel too, Sesame Street is still the playmate they could meet at the cul de sac. They giggle at Mr Noodles and have a blast mimicking the Count's compulsive obsessive counting. But my relationship with my friend has evolved. Sesame Street turned 40 last year, and is now seen in more than 140 countries around the world. My conversations with my mature friend now revolve around how important it is for every child to have access to its educational content, and how every child needs a space like Sesame Street to call his or her own. This is a space without violence, drugs and overt sexual images. This is a place where people are still nice, and good, and believe in universal kindness and love. This is a place where everyone is equal, and where the myriad of colors of humankind is something to be celebrated and appreciated, and not to divide or deride. Most importantly, this is a place where kids can be kids, for as long as they want, and not have to grow up so fast.

So, just in case I'm starting to sound like an old fashioned pain of a mum, let me remind you that I follow @Sesamestreet on Twitter. So, I'm going to go ahead and say it loud and clear (and don't you call me old fashioned): "Our kids are growing up way too fast!"

My four-year-old is humming Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga songs. She likes the boys from Big Time Rush because they are "so handsome." She has chosen two 20-year-old guys she wants as boyfriends. And she thinks that she will grow up to marry them and live happily ever after. "I want to be 16," she tells me. She thinks it's not cool to be a little girl. And when she is 16, she wants her own puppy, car and manicured nails (in that order). Oh, and she is also going to have a party. And if I'm a bad mum (meaning that I make her finish her vegetables) I won't be invited. Her discourse is created from the mashed up storyline of Nickelodeon and Disney tweeny dramas and 'princess' tales -- formulaic, profit driven products putting kids on an accelerated race to grow up and become consummate consumers of more fads, trends and popular culture.

But short of throwing out the TV, banning internet access at home and not going to the movies, there is nothing one can do to 'shield' kids from these influences. They are growing up in an era when technology has made instant global connection a given norm. In many ways, there are huge advantages to this. While I only had Sesame Street as my glimpse into a global village, my kids have endless channels and media to tap into different cultures around the world. But there is still something to be said about doing some things the old fashioned way (ok, so go ahead and call me old fashioned) in this day and age. So, I encourage them to write cards and letters, as much as email. I just taught Amon how to blog. They read books -- on paper. And newspapers -- in hard copy.

So thankfully, Ariel still chooses Big Bird over Big Time Rush. She is getting an education from Sesame Street and her brother, who gives her lectures on prehistoric lifeforms and shows her his National Geographic magazines. She is a child of her times, but she has her own space to be a child, and take her time to grow up. She has that space where she can feel safe and linger in the comfort of childhood innocence, without losing touch with the frantic world around her.

Every child deserves that kind of space. Whether it is the kid in a developing nation who has no internet access and is learning his alphabets from Big Bird, or the kid in the top economy in the world, for whom 15 minutes of internet a day (as limited by her old fashioned mum) is way too little, he or she needs a place like Sesame Street to call his or her own.

Can you tell me how to to get to Sesame Street?

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