When Big Bird Died

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No, Big Bird didn’t actually die. Nor did the puppeteer who has played him. Nor will the character, who will now be embodied by an understudy. But, with Sesame Street’s 50th anniversary quickly approaching, the man who has pulled the strings for the past 50 years, Caroll Spinney, is calling it quits this week.

Spinney recently said in aNY Times article that the demands of the job have simply become too much at the age of 84. In fact, Spinney ceased doing the physical portion of the role in 2015 and has only been providing the voice since.

The 8-foot-2 bird was apparently originally intended to be portrayed as“a funny, dumb country yokel.” But after a few episodes, Spinney instead suggested to the producers that he portray Big Bird as a child surrogate.“He can be all the things that children are. He can learn with the kids.” And for the rest of the next 50 years, that’s what he did.

Jeffrey Dunn, the president and chief executive of Sesame Workshop concluded,“Big Bird has always had the biggest heart on Sesame Street, and that’s Caroll’s gift to us.” 

For many of us, Sesame Street was a way by which we safely learned not only our A-B-C’s, but also essential social life lessons like compassion, kindness, and gentleness. For parents, Sesame Street, led by the colorful curiosity of an 8-foot, child-like avian counterpart, was like a free (or at least publicly funded) educational and emotional tutor.

But have things changed? Have kids changed?

Most would likely argue that Sesame Street was clever, entertaining, educational, and mostly innocuous. Nonetheles, probably more than any other form of modern entertainment in the past half century, Sesame Street conditioned a national “teach my kids for me” attitude. I’m obviously not suggesting that having kids watch Sesame Street meant negligent parenting. I’m simply making the case that a free, safe, digitally available resource that allowed parents to let go of being hands-on with their kiddos could become problematic. Household TV’s were common by 1969, the advent of Sesame Street, and the idea that TV’s can help raise kids became common as well.

The entertainment world (and the world in general) shifted drastically as the internet was commercialized in 1995. With 2-3 generations of parents already accustomed to leaning on technology to assist with parenting, it seemed obvious that personal computers, tablets, and smartphones would also deliver the necessary content to raise our kids. It’s cheaper and more sophisticated than ever.

And that leads us to what American psychologist Jean Twenge, perhaps our country’s brightest generational researcher, calls “iGen” – the generation after Millennials/Gen Z. They were born between 1995 and 2012. They are the most diverse generation in America’s history and total 74 million (24% of the population). And all of them will have experienced adolescence in the age of the smartphone. In her book by the same name, Twenge argues that today’s youth are growing up less rebellious and more tolerant, but less happy, anxiety-ridden, and completely unprepared for adulthood.

Big Bird represented a naive child that knew and understood almost nothing, so constantly asked questions to adults who cared for him. Today’s hyper-connected child “knows” everything, or at least has access to all available human knowledge, but still understands nothing – a dangerous combo. We literally have heartless devices in our homes by which we can say, “Alexa, Siri, Google….give me the information I’m curious about,” and they do, without concern for a child’s soul. This is a monumental shift.

Consider, for instance, how we’ve transitioned from a culture where in 1988, the movie BIG, starring Tom Hanks, was the tale of a typical child who wanted to grow up too quickly, to today, a culture of teens intentionally postponing the transition into adulthood. Research suggests that this is the most self-cloistered, safest generation we’ve seen. While there is some positive here, the delayed adulthood and prolonged adolescence creates some issues we’re only beginning to understand. For example, the average child’s awareness today of social tensions and human sexuality has drastically accelerated from where it was 50 years ago. Every world problem found on the internet is my problem. Every possible option found on the internet is my option. Again, this isn’t all bad, but unlimited information at an age where you’re not mature enough to handle the information can become harmful.

This is seen in perhaps the most obvious and concerning shift with iGen – a massive spike in teen anxiety and depression. Between 2012 and 2015, depression amongst teens rose 21% in boys and 50% in girls. Twenge says that after declining in the 1990s and stabilizing in the 2000s, the suicide rate for teens has risen again. 46% more 15-19 year-olds committed suicide in 2015 than 2007. 2½ times more 12-15 year-olds killed themselves. Twenge goes on to say,“It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

What Do We Do?

I think the general takeaway here is that you simply can’t rely on the surrounding culture to provide the guardrails necessary to disciple your child. The truth is that you never could. And for that matter, you should never rely even on your church, your child’s school, or any youth ministry to disciple your children either. These obviously aren’t bad things, but they’re not parental substitutes. Churches should never take away from parents what parents are called to do and churches (as an organization) are not fully equipped to do – i.e. Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” (Prov. 22:6)

I’ve recently taught on two texts in a row that make this point, and it’s become incredibly apparent to me that God designs for parents (ideally both mother and father) to play a hands-on role in this child-rearing.

“Fathers (or parents), do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.” (Col. 3:21)

“Fathers (or parents), do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4)

Consider cutting your kids screen time down. Perhaps a weeklong fast. If a 16-year-old can’t survive a week without social media, this probably points to a deeper problem. What they’re ultimately craving in social media is deep relationship. And no one is better equipped to offer that, and shape their psychological wellness, than their God-appointed parents.

The most hellish experience that Jesus Christ ever faced was the moment he cried out and couldn’t find his Father: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34) Fortunately for us he willfully chose to experience that cosmic estrangement in our place. But we obviously wouldn’t wish anything remotely close upon our kids. So hug them and kiss them and spend significant time with them. Be closer to them than their portable devices.