Introducing politics to child's play can be tricky business. And the mixed response to an online petition urging Sesame Street to depict breastfeeding proves just how touchy it can be.
A group describing itself as "Breastfeeding mothers and their supporters everywhere" has created a petition on the Care2 website, urging the children's program to bring back breastfeeding – a practice it saysthat Sesame Street showed during the 1970s and '80s but has since replaced with bottle-feeding.
Saskatchewan-born folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie is among the women who've breastfed their infants on the show in the past. In a segment broadcast during the 1970s, she explains to Big Bird about the advantages of breastfeeding, while nursing her son. ("He likes it 'cause it's nice and warm and sweet and natural, and it's good for him. And I get to hug him when I do it, see?" she says.)
"If we normalize breastfeeding in our community, especially with our children, we can help raise a generation of breastfeeders, which will support our economy, make for healthier children and lessen the risk of breast cancer for many nursing mamas!" the petition states.
The appeal to reintroduce breastfeeding on the popular pre-school show is just the latest cause to raise questions about whether grown-up issues are encroaching too far into children's territory. In Britain, the advocacy group Pinkstinks created a stink of its own by urging retailers to quit promoting gender stereotypes through pink clothes and toys marketed for girls. On Facebook, a movement urging toy maker Mattel to mass-produce a bald, cancer-sympathetic Barbie has prompted both support as well derision.
Detractors have offered countless tongue-in-cheek suggestions of other causes Barbie should highlight. One commenter, for example, wrote on The Globe and Mail website: "I'd like to see an obese Barbie for the kids of junk-food-feeding parents too lazy to cook nutritious meals."
Although the Sesame Street petition doesn't explicitly state that it's hoping to influence moms who are watching the show too, some signees suggest their message isn't just intended for the program's younger audiences. Several have seized the opportunity to share the benefits of breastfeeding and to voice their positions on the issue.
"Breastfeeding should be shown as the positive thing it is! Breastfeeding is the way we as mothers were meant to feed our babies and I'm tired of being discriminated against as if it is wrong or indecent," one signee wrote.
But others are questioning whether the program is an appropriate target.
As the website Buzzfeed states: "Maybe I'm not watching enough Sesame Street these days, but is a lack of nursing moms … really something that's missing from the children's TV series?"
Time magazine's Newsfeed blog also asks the question: "Why do these parents and concerned citizens feel the need to promote the issue on children's television?"
(For its part, the Sesame Workshop, which produces the show, issued this statement in an e-mail: " Sesame Street does not have a mandate against breastfeeding, and the show never made a switch to portray bottle-feeding only. We have depicted breastfeeding in the past, and would include it again in the future if it was a natural part of the storyline.")
Larry Cohen, aMassachusetts-basedpsychologist and the author of Playful Parenting, says he sees both sides of these debates. On the one hand, toys and television and other aspects of popular culture are a powerful influence on children, and while certain calls for change may seem silly to observers at the outset, they can prove to be positive steps forward.
"Black dolls and positive black TV characters, for example, would probably never have arrived without a grassroots movement such as the ones behind a bald Barbie," Dr. Cohen says.
On the other hand, he says, he has witnessed a shift among parents toward "the nonstop teachable moment," where, instead of allowing children to play spontaneously, some believe every playtime should be educational in some way.
"I think that parenting is always a balancing act between accepting and coping with things that are not perfect in the world, and acting to change them. And, as the saying goes, having the wisdom to know the difference," he says.