Daily Herald

Wednesday, October 6, 1999

NO, BIRDS DON'T DO IT:
DENIAL ON SESAME STREET

By DAVID BLANKENHORN
New York Post

IN a recent episode of Sesame Street, Kermit the Frog, dressed as a reporter for "Sesame Street News," interviews a little bird in the park, asking her where she lives. The answer is a little complicated. Some of the time, says the little bird, she lives with her mother in that tree over there. But sometimes she lives with her father, who has a separate nest in another tree nearby. Everything is really great, she concludes, in the form of a cute song, because "they both love me."

What is one to make of this little story? Certainly as a child's lesson in zoology, the story is ridiculous, since nowhere in nature do male and female birds build separate nests for the purpose of raising their young. Any species that tried it would quickly face extinction, since the behavior, from an evolutionary perspective, is clearly non-adaptive.

But of course the goal is political and psychological, not zoological. I can think of three possible rationales for introducing a "Birds Get Divorced" theme on Sesame Street. The first is to suggest to young viewers whose parents are divorcing: Don't feel bad; things will work out fine. Your parents still love you. The second is to tell all viewers that divorce is not especially painful or harmful. The third is to suggest that divorce is normal, even a part of nature.

At best, the first rationale is a form of romanticism, since it is rooted in the naive belief that sugar-coated words by themselves can somehow, for the child, off-set reality. At worst, it is a form of adult propaganda - it's no big deal when your parents split up - that flagrantly denies the feelings of children who actually experience divorce. Such a betrayal of the child's world view is shocking to see, especially on a program that prides itself on its commitment to children.

Several years ago, having decided to bring divorce to Sesame Street, the program's producers consulted several prominent authorities in child development, including Dr. Judith Wallerstein, a member of our Institute's Council on Families. These experts warned the producers unequivocally: Because divorce is acutely painful for children, one of the lousiest things adults can do is pressure them to pretend otherwise. The producers wisely put their divorce scripts back on the shelf. Did they find different consultants this time?

The second rationale, that divorce is not a serious social problem, amounts to a bold-faced lie. If the weight of evidence accumulated during the last two decades of researching this field tells us anything, it tells us that today' s high rates of parental divorce are harming children and weakening our society. Claims to the contrary, however reassuring to the people at Sesame Street, are simply no longer taken seriously by most reputable scholars.

The third rationale, that divorce has become normal, is by far the most compelling. No, divorce is not normal or natural for the birds, or for any of the animals, but at least for this generation of human beings in the U.S., divorce is indeed becoming normal. For precisely this reason, the respected family sociologist William J. Goode urges us to adopt "one guiding principle" for evaluating the divorce revolution: "we should accept the fact that most developed nations can now be seen as high divorce rate systems, and we should institutionalize divorce - accept it as we do other institutions, and build adequate safeguards as well as social understandings and pressures to make it work reasonably well." Goode is suggesting that divorce in modern societies has by now become normative: consistent with, and in some ways indicative of, society's basic moral code.

The key question for us is not whether this description is accurate. It is. Most scholars and most of the public know quite well that marriage as a social institution is decomposing in modern societies. The pressing question today is whether we as a society, on the advice of many scholars, children's television producers, and other opinion leaders, will accept the current trend toward a post-marriage society as a given, striving only to make divorce "work reasonably well," or whether we will refuse this counsel of despair and do what we can to reverse the trend.

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David Blankenhorn is president of the Institute for American Values and the author of Propositions, a quarterly letter of ideas.

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