How “Sesame Street” lessons could have stopped Larry Nassar
Anyone born in the past 50 years likely spent plenty of time watching Burt and Ernie, Elmo, Oscar, and the rest of the “Sesame Street” crew. The lovable, inviting characters delighted me as a child just as they have delighted so many others. At the same time, the show has always striven to educate its young viewers. Those lessons range from ABCs and 123s to sharing with friends or dealing with illness. Had more adults paid attention to one of the lessons Sesame Street taught us, many of the young women abused by Larry Nassar may have been saved.
It is an awful juxtaposition. A treasured children’s program and a vile, sinister monster who preyed on young girls sent to him for medical treatment. But in 1985, the year before Larry Nassar began working for the USA Gymnastics national team, the cast and crew of “Sesame Street” recognized the danger child abuse posed to its audience and how they may have inadvertently kept kids from telling adults about their abuse. That revelation led to one of the most important changes in the show’s history: Big Bird’s best friend, Snuffleupagus, could no longer be imaginary. Adults needed to believe Bid Bird’s story when he told them Snuffy existed.
I am old enough to remember watching Snuffy shuffle off-screen just as Big Bird brought an adult over to meet him. Of course when the adult arrived, Snuffy was gone and the adult assumed that he was merely a product of Big Bird’s healthy imagination. The gag was funny to a 5-year-old because adults would always just miss Snuffy. On a more subtle note, Sesame Street meant to teach kids that having an active imagination — including an imaginary friend — was a normal, healthy part of childhood.
When a rash of child abuse cases dominated headlines in the mid-1980s, though, “Sesame Street” realized the imaginary friend gag might be sending the wrong message. As the show’s executive producer, Carol-Lynn Parente, explained, “The fear was that if we represented adults not believing what kids said, they might not be motivated to tell the truth.”
Sesame Street put its team of childhood development experts to work on the issue. Making Snuffy real couldn’t happen overnight; that would risk confusing the show’s audience. It would also mean “Sesame Street” would have missed the opportunity to do what it has always done best: teach children how to deal with difficult situations. Over the next two years, Sesame Street methodically rolled out a plan to show grown-ups listening to — and believing — Big Bird’s stories about Snuffleupagus. Gradually, some adults ended up meeting him and recognizing that Big Bird had been telling the truth, even as others remained skeptical. The plan culminated in an episode where Snuffy finally took center stage and everybody realized Big Bird had been telling the truth all along.
Imagine how many young girls may have been saved from the horrors perpetrated against them by Nassar if only a few more adults had learned that lesson. By at least the mid-1990s several gymnasts told adults that Nassar had abused them. After one gymnast told Michigan State’s head gymnastics coach, Kathie Klages, about Nasar, she remembers that Klages said “she couldn’t believe that was happening … [Nassar] was somebody she trusted and knew for years.”
The young gymnast’s response? “I was silenced. I just wasn’t going to say anything else.”
The same story played out with any number of adults and authorities who could have stopped Nassar from abusing hundreds of girls. But they failed. They failed to believe those girls and they failed to take action. They failed to stop a monster. As gold medalist Aly Raisman recently said, “If one adult listened or had the character to act … we would have never met him.”
And all because they failed to learn the lesson “Sesame Street” tried to teach us years before.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and Denver Post columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq