As some of you know, we recently went on vacation in Jamaica and spent time at Beaches Ocho Rios. Beaches is owned and operated by Sandals and they have a partnership with Sesame Street. A beautiful highlight from our vacation was the character breakfast. For all the reasons you’d expect, but also because I experienced one of those rare mom moments that instantly fill your eyes with tears and your soul with warmth.
I have always been a fan of Sesame Street. When I introduced my children to television, this is where it all began. Sienna and Haley both learned their letters and numbers at an early age, and while I did spend a great deal of time working with them on that, Sesame reinforced what I was already teaching. They also demonstrate valuable lessons about kindness, friendship, and acceptance. Plus, unlike some of the other crap cartoons out there, I actually don’t mind watching it. I also feel less guilty hoping my kids are gaining something from screen time.
Haley fell in love with Sesame all over again when her sister started to watch it. She’s in kindergarten now, so some of the life lessons apply more now versus when she was 2, and it went over her head. Sesame recently introduced the character, Julia, and she just happens to have autism. I was thrilled when they announced her as an addition to the show, and I could not wait to see how they portrayed her. Like everything Sesame does, they handled it with grace and beauty. If you know me, you know that I strongly believe that when we normalize differences from an early age, it lays the foundation for a better future for all of us. Kids learn empathy, and they also learn not to pity children of different abilities. That’s an important distinction and one that was not a part of my childhood. Haley had lots of questions during that first episode with Julia. Some were easy to address and others were tough, but Haley immediately drew the connection between Julia and Sienna. At one point she said, “So Julia works a little different, just like my sister, right?” My heart swelled with pride and I said yes, but stressed that Julia is more alike than she is different, just like Sienna. And that was that.
The day of the Thanksgiving Macy’s Day Parade, Haley immediately noticed Julia wearing headphones on the float, and asked if it had to do with her aversion to loud noises. She’s noticing things and reflecting, which will lead to compassion and understanding at a future moment in time. Sesame opened the door to meaningful dialogue. I picture families with typically developing children having these same conversations and my heart bursts, because we are evolving.
The character breakfast worked like they all do…..character plates, party bags, Cookie Monster cupcakes, photo opportunities with all the characters, a dance party, everything you’d expect, except for one part.
The host made an announcement to the children letting them know that Julia was about to join us for breakfast. He explained that Julia has autism and went on further to explain some of what that meant. He asked if all the children would clap quietly when she entered, because she didn’t like loud noises. He also said that Julia gives the best hugs. He asked if any of the kids would volunteer to receive one, but they’d have to ask for her permission first. Haley’s arm shot up in the sky and when I looked around the room I realized she was the only one.
They welcomed her up, and she knew exactly what to do. She asked Julia if it was okay and when she was given the green light, her arms wrapped around her. She came back to our table confirming that Julia did indeed give the best hugs. She asked if she could get one of the Julia dolls because she wanted to snuggle with her every night. Big mom tears filled my eyes, and I, of course, said yes. In every picture from the breakfast, Haley is proudly holding her Julia doll.
I’m not saying it’s as simple as watching an episode of Sesame Street, and boom your kid understands what it means to be autistic. I am saying that it was a starting point for us. It’s an ongoing conversation, and I always tell Haley that I don’t have all the answers, but I encourage her to keep asking them and we can learn together.
I think we, as adults, hesitate to discuss this stuff with our kids, out of fear that we will say the wrong thing. We need to dispel those fears, because our kids pick up on them. In my experience, the difficult conversations have led to some of the most satisfying moments in parenthood. Watching your child evolve into a good human being is rewarding. As a mom of a child with unique abilities, I can promise you that I won’t get offended if your kid and you stumble along the way to understanding. I’ll always do my best to help if I can.
Sometimes we choose the path of least resistance because it’s what’s easiest, but life isn’t easy. It’s complicated and so are all of the people living in it. I challenge you to start a dialogue with your kids about differences. You might be surprised by their sheer brilliance and the profound questions they ask, and you might find yourself watching your kid hugging someone like Julia, and if you’re like me your eyes might fill with huge tears of pride.