A Minute With...

Robert Hughes Jr., community and human development expert

12/18/2012  8:00 am

With so many marriages ending in dissolution, perhaps it was inevitable that d-i-v-o-r-c-e should cast its shadow one day over even the cute and cuddly Muppets of perpetually sunny “Sesame Street.” The creators of the popular children’s TV program have released a set of Web-based tools developed to help young children understand and discuss the difficult topic of parental divorce. Robert Hughes Jr., the head of the department of community and human development at the University of Illinois, was one of the experts who participated in developing the content. Hughes spoke recently with News Bureau reporter Sharita Forrest.

What messages did you think were important to convey, given that the intended viewers are 2-8 years old?

image of professor robert hughesEven though, technically, it’s aimed at that children’s age group, I would say the parents are just as important of a target audience. Most of what we’re trying to do is really to teach the parents and to give them tools to engage their children, talk about these topics and introduce some ideas to the kids.

There’s one video that shows a little girl (Muppet character Abby Cadabby) displaying pictures she’s drawn of her mom’s house and her dad’s house and talking about each of them. Implicit in that is a message for adults – ‘This is how children’s experience will look.’ They ought to be able to say in an easy way: ‘I have these two places to live. They’re both good places.’ ”

It’s this clever way of, through the children’s story, teaching the kids and sending messages to the parents. Clearly, one of those messages is, work these things out, parents. Don’t keep fighting over these things. Don’t make your child’s life more complicated. Figure out a way to co-parent and reduce the amount of conflict that kids are exposed to.

And, a second message is, both parents are important and need to stay involved and contribute to the lives of these children. There isn’t any element in this that implies it’s OK for one of the parents to disappear.

A third message is, talk about this. A lot of parents struggle with that. There’s a right time initially, but the truth is, families are going to talk about this repeatedly over the rest of these children’s lives. As children grow up they’re going to understand the experience differently at each age.

It ought to be a comfortable enough topic that it’s an easy thing for kids to ask questions about and increasingly understand.

“Sesame Street” produced a program about divorce in 1992, but didn’t broadcast it after parents and preschoolers in the focus groups reacted badly. What was different with this version?

There are a number of things that were different this time around.

That initial program was one of the first things they showed us and discussed. Part of their decision to pull that program was that at that time television was the only delivery medium they had because the Internet didn’t exist yet. It was going to have to be integrated into the daily program for every child to see. This version is available only over the Internet, so parents or kids make a choice to go there and watch it.

In that version, the character (Snuffleupagus) had just learned about his parents’ decision to divorce and was in great distress. Watching the segment, you got a real sense of how distressing that was, and the children who watched it felt it too. That distress overwhelmed any of the other messages it contained.

This time around, the character affected by the parental divorce isn’t as distressed and didn’t just find out about her parents’ decision to divorce the previous night. She’s presenting her drawings about that experience in a calm way. She’s not saying everything’s OK, but she’s further along in the journey and is pretty happy and positive.

Divorce is just one of a series of topics – including serious illness, natural disasters and financial problems – that “Sesame Street” is addressing through these online tools. The theme that runs through all of them is promoting resilience and teaching children skills to cope with challenges and changes in their lives and helping them do problem solving and learn to manage their emotions.

Many of us who worked on these materials hope that they will be integrated into the regular children’s program because even if a child is not affected directly by one of these problems, the skills that are being taught are universal.

Parent education courses are now part of the divorce process for many people. How good of a job are these programs doing?

I think we’ve gotten better and better at this. A lot of the same messages that were in the “Sesame Street” videos are part of those courses as well. But these programs are brief. Parents go and do their two-hour mandated program, and they’re done.

What’s handy about the “Sesame Street” stuff is the tools are available over the Internet on a continuous basis. They’re an extra tool or a tool that’s available if a parent was too distressed to grasp all the material when they went through the class.

This is a slightly softer and more engaging lesson. Parents can watch it, maybe with their children, and think about it a little differently than they did when they were forced to sit in a classroom.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we didn’t see some of the parent education programs using these illustrations in the classroom instruction. If I were teaching those classes, I’d sure take advantage of those tools and methods.

NOTE: The “Sesame Street” toolkit, “Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce,” Is available online at www.sesamestreet.org/divorce.

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