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Divorce Is a Tough Row for ‘Sesame Street’ to Hoe

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I have yet to meet anyone who feels his or her parents delivered the news of divorce very well. For a child, there doesn’t seem to be any sugar that makes that medicine go down. Even the least rancorous split shatters a child’s view of the world--sometimes temporarily, sometimes for a very long time.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a perfect way to handle such a bombshell? If you could just sit the kids down and tell them calmly and sincerely that you don’t love each other anymore but you’ll always love them? And wouldn’t it be great if the kids understood and believed you?

“Sesame Street” has grappled with the question for some time. After 23 years on the air--after episodes on love, on birth and on death--the landmark children’s TV show has decided to tackle the issue.

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Why, you might ask, should preschoolers be exposed to divorce on an educational show such as “Sesame Street”? Because divorce is a reality for millions of children; before they turn 18, an estimated 40% of Americans will witness the end of their parents’ marriages. And because divorce is so confusing.

But as the “Sesame Street” staff discovered, there is no easy way to broach the subject with an audience of preschoolers.

In the segment they created, Snuffleupagus--the shy elephant nicknamed “Snuffy”--tells friends that his father is moving to a new cave, leaving Snuffy, his sister and his mother by themselves.

After testing the episode on about 60 children, “Sesame Street” has decided not to broadcast it. Despite all kinds of safeguards and explanations, the children came away confused about what was happening; whether Snuffy’s father would still love him, whether arguing is a normal part of being married or necessarily leads to divorce.

“Some of the messages were misunderstood by some of the children, and that was enough for us to say we can’t put this on the air,” said Ellen Morgenstern, the show’s director of media relations. “We weren’t going to take that risk. That is not what ‘Sesame Street’ is all about.”

“Sesame Street” would not make a tape of the segment available but did volunteer a copy of the script, which was written and rewritten after much consultation with a panel of child psychologists.

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The episode, “Divorce Sesame Street Style,” is pretty depressing.

That’s because it’s realistic.

It begins with Snuffy shuffling distractedly into the scene just as Big Bird knocks over a tower of blocks. Snuffy starts to cry.

Big Bird: “Snuffy, it’s OK. It’s just a castle made out of blocks. I can make another one.”

Snuffy: “No, you can’t make another one. It’ll never be the same. Ooh!”

Snuffy breaks the news to Big Bird about the divorce and says his sister, Alice, beats up her teddy bear when her parents fight in the next room.

In some scenes, the show’s human host, Gordon, offers compassionate explanations about how divorce is sometimes the best solution for parents, about how children neither cause nor prevent divorce, about how everyone fights, but not everyone divorces.

Gordon: “Nobody likes divorce. It’s very hard on everyone.”

Big Bird: “Then why do it? Why can’t Snuffy’s parents just keep loving each other and stay married?”

Gordon: “Well, they loved each other when they got married . . . uh . . . and I’m sure they tried very hard to keep loving each other . . . but they probably . . . they just couldn’t love each other anymore. And so . . . they decided to divorce because . . . well . . . even though it’s hard, they really do think it will make things better.”

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Gordon was careful and comforting. Still, when the children’s reactions were tested, “Sesame Street” found that they either ignored or were not soothed by Gordon’s reassurances. The little viewers ended up worried about all the issues that seemed so clearly explained in the script.

They did not understand, for instance, that Snuffy’s father would be moving to a new cave across town, even though that had been spelled out. Some thought the father ran away; some thought Snuffy and Alice would never see him again, even though they talked about spending weekends with him.

Many children thought Snuffy’s parents would not love him anymore. And even though Gordon made an emphatic point about the fact that everyone argues, said Morgenstern, “afterward, most of the preschoolers asserted that an argument between parents would lead to a divorce.”

“This is clearly not what we wanted. And it was obvious to us, they were bringing a lot (of experience) to this discussion,” she added.

The show’s staff felt that perhaps too much information was being conveyed in the segment, that the messages were maybe a little too complicated for preschoolers.

And so it is back to the drawing board.

“We are going to simplify the messages,” said Morgenstern. “We probably won’t get into the reasons for divorce, just that it happens. It is very likely that a preschooler will hear the word divorce . We want them to understand what that is.”

When the folks at “Sesame Street” finally get the divorce episode right--and you can bet they will--kids shouldn’t be the only ones watching. Parents should too.

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With notebooks in hand.

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