Thursday, February 9, 2022

By Courtney Wise

Good morning, MindSite News readers. Today we talk about how Elmo, Big Bird and other beloved Sesame Street characters can help us talk with our children about tragedy and other traumatic events. We also take a close-up look at Florida’s classroom book ban, which doesn’t bode well for the mental health of students, teachers or families there.

Also, teens point out what parents are overlooking in the debates over smart phones, bullying and body image. And teen psychologist Dr. Barbara Greenberg talks about why it’s not good to label as child as “perfect.” Biden’s State of the Union address talks about mental health and protecting Black sons and daughters. Finally, we examine the economics of thinness, which affects girls as young as six.

Sesame Street helps parents talk to young children about trauma

via Twitter

Some preschoolers and young children live through mass shootings, and millions more are traumatized by hearing about it. Natural disasters abound as well, with news of the terrible earthquake this Monday that claimed thousands of lives across Turkey and Syria. If it’s hard for adults to talk about these events, it’s even harder to figure out what to tell the children and help them work through their fears and trauma. Thankfully, KQED reminded us that Sesame Workshop has got our backs.

As part of the Workshop’s earlier programming on trauma, Sesame Street featured a program in which Big Bird received support after a natural disaster destroyed his nest, leaving him temporarily homeless. His neighbors and friends pitch in to rebuild the nest as Big Bird veers from shock and anger to sadness and confusion. After lots of hugs and offers of places to play until his nest is ready, Big Bird finally feels more hopeful.

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind Sesame Street, explains it’s on a mission to help kids everywhere “grow smarter, stronger, and kinder.” After it launched Sesame Street Communities in 2017 to spread joy and fun while working for diversity, equity and inclusion around the world, its beloved muppets have helped guide kids through  tough issues, from homelessness and parental addiction to foster care and incarceration. As the nonprofit observed: “With their warmth, humor,  and friendly personalities, Elmo, Grover and Abby Cadabby make difficult topics much easier for parents and kids to talk about.”

The Sesame Workshop partners with child developmental experts and organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association to develop these videos and other teaching materials. Jeanette Betancourt of Sesame Workshop encourages parents to use them “when the little one asks a question or shows a sign of distress… to help support your talks with them.” Because Elmo and Big Bird will be happy to help out.

Florida classroom book bans put more than intellectual freedom at risk

via Twitter

Happy Banned Book Week?! The books most often banned in the United States include the science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451 (“the temperature at which books burn”) about a dystopian future in which reading is forbidden and any books found in private homes are confiscated by firefighters and burned.

Meanwhile, as Salon senior writer Amanda Marcotte lays out, Florida’s Ron DeSantis is approaching book bans with ferocious energy, much as the firefighters in Fahrenheit 451 approached book burning. His campaign is so aggressive that many public school students across the state are essentially restricted from reading any books in classrooms at all, despite the argument that DeSantis supporters have made that “only unvetted books” are unavailable on shelves. The Florida law states that any book accessible to students “must be selected by a school district employee who holds a valid educational media specialist certificate,” typically meaning the school librarian. In reality, the legislation “creates a bottleneck preventing books from getting into the hands of students.” In addition, she argues, it portrays books as “inherently dangerous objects” too volatile for students to handle without direct supervision. 

In fact, it’s the book ban itself that threatens students’ safety – and that of their teachers. Florida’s teachers and school administrators are at risk of being charged with felonies and imprisoned for years for even displaying “disallowed” literature in classrooms. In barring the teaching of most Black history by stating it has no educational value, racism and racial inequality become myths and phantoms. Books with LGBTQ characters are banned for fear of “grooming children” and include “two repugnant arguments,” Marcotte says: that LGBTQ identities just disappear if not acknowledged and that their vanishment would be preferable. None of it bodes well for the psychological well-being of children and teachers in Florida.

 (Mindsite News has previously reported on the danger to school librarians’ mental health from book bans, threats and doxxing as well as the attack on social-emotional learning in schools from dark money-funded groups aiming to whip up conservative voter outrage and siphon public school monies to charter schools.)

Ask Barbara: Advice from a Teen Psychologist

Dr. Barbara Greenberg, Teen Psychologist

Dear Barbara,

My older son is someone our friends have described as a “perfect child,” and we may have even told him that once or twice. He makes good grades in school, excels on the soccer team, does his chores and walks the dog every day. He has a good sense of humor, too, and jokes around a lot with his younger brother, who adores him. He had thought about taking drama this year, but it conflicted with his soccer practice. Lately he has seemed a little down, though, and quieter than usual. Should I check in with him or just let him talk to us if he has something on his mind?


Dear correspondent,

Definitely have a talk with your son about what is on his mind. You could mention you have noticed he is more withdrawn lately and you wonder if anything is troubling him. Let him know you are there for him, and that he can talk to you about anything. “Perfect children” tend to suffer in silence, so let him know you don’t want him to feel pressure to be perfect…

Read Dr. Greenberg’s full response here, which includes a discussion of the seven difficulties that perfect kids seem to have in common and why parents should not label kids this way.

Teens’ turn: What parents should know about smartphones

Parents worry about kids and smartphones, full stop. From what we hear, they’re the epicenter of adolescent angst. When phones aren’t pulling kids away from academic growth, chores, sleep and the ability to talk with their parents, they’re putting their safety at risk through bullying or peer pressure on social media. However parents feel, though, smartphones are clearly here to stay – supporting both children and the rest of us in work, education, and play. Knowing that, it’s time for parents to shift their approach, said Catherine Pearlman, a licensed clinical social worker and family coach, from lecturing about the pitfalls of smartphones to talking with children and teens about them. She told the Washington Post that “we all have to be engaging in digital education for the rest of our lives,” leaving parents responsible for starting conversations with their children again and again as technology – and kids – rapidly change.

Hoping to guide parents on where to start, the Washington Post asked teens what they wish their parents understood about the role of smartphones in their lives. Primarily, teens say, they’re not just for fun. “My phone is as important to me as my house keys, and, luckily, I have parents who understand that,” said Carlin Greenhouse, 14. “What I don’t think they understand is that when I’m on it, I’m not just mindlessly scrolling. I’m actually productive on it — I’m answering school-related emails or responding to texts from friends. And, most apps that I need every day for school require two-factor authentication, which I need my phone for.”

Other teens echoed what psychologists and social workers say parents should do: Allow phone use with boundaries that are created in partnership with kids, rather than dished out as demands. They welcome conversations about internet safety and even expect their phones to be monitored by their parents for their protection – as long as their privacy isn’t violated in the process. And more than one teen cautioned parents about kids and social media: It’s not always necessary and it causes a lot of drama.

Caleb Murphy, 15, was more direct. “Don’t let kids have social media until they’ve had a phone for a while,” he said. “Social media is not good. And however old I am, it’s still hurtful. TikTok is incredibly addicting. I have woken up and just scrolled for hours. Instagram, especially for my friends who are girls, is really not good for mental health as far as body image stuff. And there’s so much going on on Instagram to be jealous of.”

In other news…

In case you missed it, The Economist recently looked at the economics of thinness and the belief that rich people tend to be slimmer than lower-income folks. When gender was taken into account, it turns out, researchers found that rich men tended to be as overweight or obese as poor men, but rich women tended to be thin. The article concluded that societal expectations pushed women to be as thin as possible, and sadly, that this lesson was absorbed by girls as early as age 6.

In President Biden’s State of the Union address, he devoted the most emotional and personal lines of his speech to the historic and continuing trauma experienced by so many people of color at the hands of police. “Imagine what it’s like to lose a child at the hands of the law. Imagine having to worry whether your son or daughter will come home from walking down the street or playing in the park or just driving their car.” A bill that will be introduced in Congress would, among other measures, limit no-knock warrants and chokeholds and create a national database for office misconduct allegations.

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Courtney WiseReporter

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...