Don't Worry, Mom

Coping with anxiety in families

Living Life the Sesame Street Way

How sunny days chased all my clouds away.

We have been watching a lot of Sesame Street recently.  And by "a lot," I mean 2-3 hours a day of Elmo's World, Maria, Gordon, Oscar, Big Bird, Zoey, & Abby.  Some days I feel as though I live at 123 Sesame Street.  Although there are days when I tire of hearing what Dorothy is thinking about and want to say "Scram!" like my pal, Oscar, every time that I watch it, I notice that my stress level goes down and I feel a renewed sense of calm.  I walk away feeling as though all is right in the world and reminded of the things in life that are important. 

The beauty in Sesame Street is the simplicity.  Relationships are not complicated and people’s goals are never veiled.  No one stabs one another in the back or pursues their own needs at others’ expense.  Everyone genuinely seems to want to help one another and neighbors are always, well, neighborly.  There was one episode where Bert and Ernie’s apartment was flooded so they stayed with Gordon and Susan for the night.  If you can overlook the strangeness of having an extra set of twin beds in your bedroom in case your neighbors drop by for a slumber party, you are struck by the sense of community that is present on Sesame Street.  There was no stress or panic generated by the flood.  Instead, it was simply a problem to be fixed by a community of friends and because of that it was fixed calmly and quickly. 

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On Sesame Street, basic kindness is always in style—something that we seem to forget on every other street in America.  We all teach our children to share, to treat one another as we would like to be treated, and to always say please and thank you.  Yet most adults do not live by these rules.  We look out for ourselves and see others as competition for the same resources.  We focus on our own goals and needs, often to the detriment of others.  We cut others off in traffic, place our order for coffee without even exchanging pleasantries with the barista, let alone saying “thank you,” and we rarely offer up our seat on the bus to an elderly person or pregnant woman.  It seems like we forget to engage in the basic kindness that we emphasize to our kids and somehow think that’s okay. 

But never on Sesame Street.  On Sesame Street everyone says hello to one another.  They stop their busy lives to help out a poor bear who is learning to be potty trained.  Muppets always say “thank you” to Alan when they are served lunch at Hooper’s Store and Elmo would rather buy a cookie for a hungry Cookie Monster than buy the toy that he has been saving up to buy for himself. 

There is little stress on Sesame Street.  Part of that is likely that there is no recession on Sesame Street and no crime to worry about.  But there is also no competition to be “the best” in one’s field, to have the biggest TV or the largest house on the block.  Although that is obviously unrealistic and it would halt all of science and progress if we all lived our lives this way, there is a certain appeal to living life simply.  Folks on Sesame Street do jobs that they seem to enjoy and where the goal is to help others. They take time out of their lives to help one another and actually seem to care about those who live nearby.  They would never cut one another off in traffic or squeal into that last parking space in the lot before the car that is waiting patiently for the spot. They would always fess up in they ruined someone else’s possession and apologize for their mistakes.  On Sesame Street people don’t waste time on the things that stress us out the most—the little ways in which we hurt one another and cause stress to one another in our ruthless pursuit to have it all. Instead they devote time to the joys in life while also working hard enough to live comfortably. 

I can’t help but think that that there is wisdom in the way life is lived on Sesame Street and that perhaps we would all be happier and less stressed if we tried just a little harder to live our lives that way.  I am not advocating that we all live a fantasy life where there is no crime, no financial woes, we hang out with Muppets, and our biggest life questions are about what type of animal a Snuffleupagus is.  Instead, I am suggesting that perhaps we need to live our very real and stressful lives based on the tenets that we instill in our children—be kind and friendly to others and help others out when you can.  We all need reminders to live our lives that way and of how good it feels to live your life based on these tenets.  I always feel happier if I have let someone else pull into traffic, knowing that I made that person’s life just a little easier.  The smile of surprise and gratitude when I helped a struggling mom who had dropped her groceries made my day and reduced my stress. Helping others not only makes others feel good, it makes us feel good!

For me, the countless hours of watching Sesame Street with my child are therapeutic and a big step towards remembering these values.  They tame my inner Oscar the Grouch and bring out the Elmo who lurks within. So catch an episode of Sesame Street when you can and try to remember to live your life the way you would if you lived at 123 Sesame Street.  If we aren’t living our lives this way as adults, what is the point in teaching these values to our children? 

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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