Monday, March 23, 2009

The Sesame Street Lie

My kids and I read a Sesame Street library book last week: The People in Your Neighborhood: Doctors! Designed to help kids feel more comfortable about visiting the pediatrician, it was a bit wordy for a board book but otherwise fit its purpose until the last page, on which a doctor and nurse tell Elmo and the books readers, “You can be a doctor if you want to.” This statement seemed out of place in the story, and I wondered why it was included. It is unnecessary – and in many cases, untrue. Just ask someone who didn’t get into medical school.

Adults have been telling kids this lie at least as long as I've been alive: "You can be (or do) anything you want." Sure, kids need some encouragement at times, and often they can do more than they think they can, but no human (or furry red monster) can do everything. Neither can every role be filled by as many people who want the job. (Imagine how difficult it would be to reach a consensus if every kid who wanted to be President of the United States actually got to be!)

When I was a kid, I wanted to fly (without an airplane), meet Ricky Schroeder, and become a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader -- three things I never had the skill or opportunity to do. As an adult, I no longer have the desire to do these things, but what if I had pursued my five-year-old self's dream of becoming a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader? With my naturally clumsy and chunky body, I would have soon learned the hard way that adults had been lying to me -- I couldn't really be whatever I wanted to be.

In our culture, we are overly concerned with children's self-esteem. Personally, I hope my kids don’t have good self-esteem – who wants to raise children who esteem themselves, who think they’re all that? I do want my children to recognize and use their abilities, but I want them to feel confident in skills they actually have. Creating false hopes just creates bigger self-esteem problems when they realize they're not able to do everything they want to do! As parents and teachers, we would do our children a much better service if we could teach them to discover their strengths and passions and to find a role in society that maximizes those qualities.

The "You can do anything" lie has an even deeper problem for those with a Christian worldview -- it teaches children to rely only on themselves, people who will no doubt let them down at some point. While I don't expect Sesame Street to teach my children to rely on God, as I hope to teach them myself, I do wish the show would stop lying to children and stick to the things it teaches well -- the letters, numbers, friendship, and enthusiasm for life.


  1. I think this does seem outdated for a modern Sesame Street book. The 'you can be anything you want to be' movement was most popular from the 70's to early 80's. I remember my mom telling this to me, but if I was growing up now, I don't believe she would have. I believe that even Mr Fred Rogers, later in life, retracted on the high self esteem is good for kids theory.
    However I do believe that people of average intelligence who really want to become doctors can probably get into a medical school in a country outside the U.S. :)

  2. Although, yes, telling a child "you can do anything you put your mind to" can be misleading, read "Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else" by Geoff Colvin for another perspective on this.


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