by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"What is food to one, is to others bitter poison."... ... Lucretius.
Commentary of the Day - June 28, 2005: The Re-education of Cookie Monster. Guest commentary by Felice Prager.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I never ate lunch. There was this senior (I can't remember his name) who lived in a high-rise apartment about a block from school; and, every day we would go to his apartment to hang out while his parents were at work. Since he was going out with my best friend (I can't remember her name) and he was best friends with my boyfriend (I think his name was Dirk or Derek, and I can remember my father referring to him as Dreck,) it gave us a private place to be. When we got to his apartment, we turned on the TV. I was heavily into soap operas at the time and didn't want to miss a minute of Barnabas Collins. Somehow, however, we found Sesame Street and from that point on, my Dark Shadows addiction was over. That's what we did every day. That, and sometimes we would drink Tab because our friend's mom was as hooked on Tab as were we; and, she kept the refrigerator stocked with it. Sometimes we ate cookies and chips that my friend's father hid behind the low calorie stuff in the cabinets. Oh yeah, and sometimes we would make out.
Sesame Street was brand new back then. From the first viewing, we instinctively knew that Sesame Street was going to be around for a long time and would make a significant difference in how little kids learned to count and read. It was entertaining, colorful, and very groovy. From the Count, Bert and Ernie, and Cookie Monster to Oscar the Grouch, Kermit the Frog, and Big Bird, the boob tube was definitely moving toward usefulness.
This year, Sesame Street is celebrating its 35th birthday. The show has outlived its creator and many of the actors who originally lived on Sesame Street. New characters have been created, animated, and marketed. Actors, singers, and politicians have done segments of the show.
When my children were young, they watched Sesame Street, and since I was a stay-at-home mom, I watched it with them. Often, when we were seated at the dinner table, my sons would sing "C is for Cookie - tha'ís good enough for me," "My name is Eddie, I like spaghetti, and I eat it e-ver-y day," or ďGross! Gross! This food is gross, and Iím not gonna eat it!" Then they would eat whatever I gave them, even though it wasn't necessarily cookies, spaghetti, or gross.
Yesterday, my younger son, who is a little older and a lot wiser than I was when I first discovered Sesame Street, asked if I had read the article about Cookie Monster on CNN.com. I hadn't. He brought it up on my computer and continued to talk as I tried to read. "Can you believe they're turning Cookie Monster into a health food monster? The next thing you know, Bert and Ernie are going to come out of the closet and Oscar the Grouch is going to clean up his trash can. The sky is falling. The sky is falling." He was being witty and sarcastic, and I would have stolen his lines, but I want the world to know what I have created.
According to the CNN.com article, "Has Cookie Monster Given up Sweets?" Sesame Street is going to include segments about healthy lifestyles this year; and, Cookie Monster is going to start singing a new song: "A Cookie Is a Sometimes Food." According to the article, Dr. Rosemarie T. Truglio, the show's vice president of research and education, believes that with the rise in childhood obesity, Sesame Street must concentrate on teaching children about healthy foods and physical activity. There will be healthy eating tips, new characters such as talking vegetables, and guests who will promote healthy eating and physical activity.
This isn't the first time Sesame Street has addressed nutrition, by the way. When my sons were young, they had a character called Captain Vegetable who saved children like Eddie who ate too much spaghetti. It is the first time they've addressed poor Cookie Monsterís need to scarf down plates filled with cookies though.
Combating poor eating habits and poor physical fitness in children is a tough task, and I suppose Sesame Street is a good enough place to start if it isn't happening in the home. It is certainly admirable of them to take on this new cause. Personally, and I want to go on the record as stating this, I do not blame Cookie Monster for my bad eating habits. Like Cookie Monster, until I started being smarter about my eating and exercise habits, I was able to scarf down plates of cookies and whatever else was put in front of me. It took me fifty years to unlearn all the bad eating habits I had developed through my life. Though not from copying their mother, my own children have picked up enough information from school and life to know that there is a big difference between what's healthy and what is junk. My kids just thought Cookie Monster was a silly character. (And much to the contrary of what educators have said over the year, they both have known right from the start that you don't have an objective pronoun as the subject of a sentence. Me taught them well.)
In the CNN.com article, Truglio's comments about Cookie Monster's cookie addiction: "We're not putting him on a diet. We're teaching him moderation."
When my sons were in the earliest grades, it was customary to bring treats on their birthdays. In the beginning, I'd run to the supermarket and buy several dozen cupcakes. I'd drop them off at school, and everyone was happy.
Then the annual notes changed, "We are trying to eat healthier in Room XYZ this year. If your student (translation of "student" here is "kid") is having a birthday, please refrain from sending in sugar-laden products such as cupcakes, cake, or cookies. Instead, send in carrot sticks, broccoli, cauliflower, or celery with dips to sample as a birthday treat." I went along with it because I didn't want to be anti-health, but I kept wondering what the teacher did when the kids finished singing "Happy Birthday" over the bowl of cut vegetables. Did she say, "Now, blow all over the dip so we can pass it around for group dipping"?
I cannot tell a lie: as instructed, I peeled and cut vegetables for hours and put them into baggies the night before their school parties, but when my sons got home, we ate chocolate birthday cake with mounds of chocolate icing. The cut vegetables with dips trend never took off as a birthday tradition in our house. Maybe that was because my kids never balked at healthy food to begin with. They used to go to the refrigerator (and still do) to grab vegetables and fruit for snacks. They also ate cookies, cupcakes, and candy. The trick was monitoring what they ate and how much of it they ate.
I've been working with students after school for several years. When their parents pick them up from school to bring them to me, the kids are hungry. In some schools, lunch begins as early as 10:15 AM. It is no surprise that, depending on how much and what a kid eats during lunch period, the student will be hungry by 3 PM. They often arrive at my office with food from McDonald's or Taco Bell. They generally have a soda and fries. I did the same when my kids were doing similar after-school activities. We were in a hurry to get from here to there, and I was lazy. When they were little, a baggie filled with Cheerios worked. As they got older, they were hungry for a soda and fries. Bad habits, I know, but that's what our lives were like.
I think Sesame Street is on the right track though because some children are not aware of how they become overweight. They just are. Teaching moderation is the key to everything. When you overdo it, your body reacts. Too much junk food is bad for the body. No junk food is boring. Not enough exercise makes Jack a fatso just as too much exercise lands Felice Prager in the emergency room with an asthma attack.
Though I hope Cookie Monster doesn't go through any terrible withdrawal, the re-education of Cookie Monster may help children become healthier. Cookie Monster is not the cause of the obesity of young children, but he can deliver the message and be a small part of the solution.
© 2005, Felice Prager
Felice Prager is a freelance writer and former English teacher from Arizona. She publishes the Write Funny pages.
The IP comments: There can be no question that something needs to be done about the epidemic of childhood (and early adult) obesity that now is prevalent in the United States. When the IP first started teaching it was rare to see a student who was grossly overweight. Today, it is an all too common phenomenon that has costly consequences both for the individual and for society at large. More schools need to remove the junk food purveyors and the ubiquitous soft-drink vending machines from their campuses. In addition, a return to mandatory physical education might not be such a bad thing.
© 2005 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.