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Elmo to help military families talk to kids

Sesame Street DVD to be distributed free to ease deployment discussions
/ Source: The Associated Press

You know the deal: Your kid asks a question on a touchy subject. You squirm and dodge the issue.

With a little help from Elmo, Sesame Street is urging parents to level with their little ones — especially those in military families trying to deal with Mom or Dad’s lengthy deployment overseas.

“Our goal is to really get military families with young children ... to talk about the different stages of deployment with their children, not only talk about it but prepare them for it,” said Jeanette Betancourt, vice president of content design at Sesame Workshop, which produces Sesame Street.

Sesame Workshop has produced a DVD, in both English and Spanish, that will be distributed free to military families next month. CEO Gary Knell was to announce details Friday in Houston, joined by officials of Wal-Mart, which has committed $1.5 million to the project.

Karla Sketch, the family readiness coordinator at Fort Campbell, an Army base on the Kentucky-Tennessee line, says parents often request coloring books, pamphlets or any materials that will help them discuss a soldier’s absence on a kid’s level.

Many parents, she said, are afraid of saying the wrong thing and frightening their children. “Are they going to tell their kids too much? Are they going to tell them enough? Some parents are new to the military. They don’t even understand it themselves,” Sketch said.

The DVD shows Elmo and his parents preparing for Elmo’s dad to be deployed, though it doesn’t say where he’s going.

Talking about feelings, setting up practicesThe characters discuss their feelings, exchange keepsakes and review the reasons why Elmo can’t go, too. They promise to think about one another often, and keep up their regular practice of saying goodnight to the moon.

“Elmo, you know, no matter where I am, I’ll still be able to see the moon, just like you,” his dad says.

The DVD also addresses the mixed feelings that sometimes come unexpectedly with reunions. Elmo describes feeling “excited in a funny way” on reunion day. He goes on to say his tummy is doing flip-flops.

Sketch says that kind of dialogue is critical and often overlooked.

“A lot of times, after a year, you have to get to know that person again. Reunion is a process you have to get through,” she said. “It’s going to be great the first day, but it is a process, and it’s not just going to be back to business as usual as soon as that soldier comes home.”

Some half a million children of active duty personnel are newborn to 5 years old, said Leslye Arsht, deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy.

Sensitive depictions of military lifeArsht said Sesame Street accurately and sensitively depicts what their lives are like by using show characters like Elmo, Telly and Rosita interspersed with interviews with real-life families throughout the DVD.

Joanna Lopez and her family were among those featured in the interviews. Her husband, Ernesto, is an infantryman based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina who has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Lopez, who has a 9-year-old and 5-year-old and is expecting her third child, predicted the DVD would be helpful to families like hers.

“Some parents don’t know how to deal with children when there is a deployment,” she said. “Other kids in school will say, ‘My daddy is away killing bad guys.’ This prepares the mom or dad to prepare the kids with better things to say.”

Moses Rogers, a Navy reservist and father of two, also near Fort Bragg, was another participant in the program. He said being part of the DVD project made him think about deployments in a new light.

“I think the lesson that I got personally was, separating from your family is really hard, but if you communicate that is good,” he said.

If he were to offer advice to other families now, Rogers said that he would say, “Talk to your children. Let them know what’s going on. Let them know that you’re going somewhere to help somebody.”