I went to Sesame Street! My reaction to being in the place where these iconic characters are created was “OMG OMG OMG.” I got to interview Kama Einhorn, senior content manager at Sesame Street. Kama has written for Sesame Street for 15 years and creates the stories and personalities of the “resilience Muppets.”
The resilience Muppets represent children dealing with challenging and traumatic situations, including incarcerated parents and homelessness.
The newest one is Karli, who was introduced as being in foster care in May 2019. Then, in October, it was revealed that Karli’s mother is away getting treatment for her addiction problem.
Kama writes all Muppets’ dialogue to make sense to children 2 to 6 years old. She says sometimes slightly older children can be helped through the “tough topics” that the resilience Muppets face. Karli is developmentally age 6½, and that’s how she talks.
“We show the issue through a child, from a child’s perspective,” Kama explains.
Though most of us know Sesame Street from the television show, now 50 years old, there is a lot of Sesame Street material online—videos, stories, lessons, and activities for adults to do with children.
Kama says, “All of these topics are meant to stand alone. There’ll be plenty of people in the foster care community who won’t use the parental addiction resources and vice versa. But because of the overlap, we use Karli to do both.”
Kama explains how new and old Muppets illustrate the challenges kids face.
“Sometimes we use existing Muppets that we all know and love to teach a particular thing. We used Big Bird to show general traumatic experiences. We simply had him having a hard time and overwhelmed with feelings.”
I remembered from my childhood when Big Bird had “big feelings.”
“Yes, exactly!” Kama said, “But we didn’t say what his trauma was because we wouldn’t assign a specific issue to Big Bird.”
Instead Kama creates new Muppets who have autism (Julia), or experience homelessness (Lily) or parental incarceration (Alex). And now there’s Karli and her foster parents, Dalia and Clem.
A Muppet in Care
I wondered how Kama and her team did the research needed to create Karli and her life.
She explains, “We form an advisory board of experts made up of university researchers, foster care providers and advocates, and policy experts. Several of our foster care advisory board members were themselves in care, and several are foster caregivers.”
As a writer, though, Kama also drew on real life: “I actually based Karli’s bio on a dear friend of mine from college who was in foster care from the age of 5.”
Karli is in foster care now; her backstory is that her mom struggles with addiction, and is away at inpatient treatment.
“Karli’s mom,” says Kama, “will be back in three months and then they’ll reunite. Karli’s having some anxiety about her mom coming back.”
Though Karli is only 6, Kama says, “It’s important that she’s presenting a strategy and that she’s in a position of strength.
“We have to show the Muppets who represent children being agents of change in their own lives and practicing coping strategies that kids will watch and be able to copy.”
In one video, Karli draws a heart around a picture of her and her mother and explains to Elmo that “a heart can grow.”
She then draws bigger hearts around that one to include her foster parents, who she calls her “for-now parents.” Kama explains that Elmo is developmentally age 3½, so other Muppets and people often explain things to him, using language appropriate for that age.
Other videos show foster parents Dalia and Clem singing to Karli, “You are safe. You are strong. You have a place here. You belong.”
Kama says the materials are not just for helping kids.
“If an adult watches this and picks up some good things that Muppet foster parents Dalia and Clem are saying, then that’s helping adults help kids.”
Kama says Sesame Street did research and found that one in eight kids in the U.S. have a parent with an identified substance abuse disorder.
“That’s almost six million kids under the age of 11 who are affected. And within the foster care world, it’s one in three affected by substance abuse.”
In Sesame Street’s parental addiction resources (see below), Karli and others model asking for help from a caring and trusted adult.
The videos, stories, and exercises also show “coping strategies, which we call tools in a toolbox,” Kama explains, “like deep breathing, imagining your safe place, and drawing your feelings.”
In one video, Karli draws her feelings and puts them in the Feeling Basket. This works, Kama says, because “it’s a visual way to show owning her feelings. And she can put it aside. She can put it on a shelf, not hide it away. That is an important distinction.”
How do you explain addiction to a 3-year-old?
Kama laughs, “You go to the experts, and you write a 10-word sentence that you show to a million people and you test it out.
“We say ‘Addiction is a sickness in the brain,’ but then we have to emphasize not the kind you catch, like a cold, because little kids will be concrete. And that sickness in the brain ‘makes a person feel that they have to drink alcohol or use drugs in order to feel OK.’ And we didn’t say in order to feel ‘better’. We said in order to feel ‘OK.’ Because that addresses the actual physiological addiction.”
For all the traumatic topics, the writers mainly show the Muppets’ healing process.
“We show how they can help themselves feel calmer. We want to remind kids that this is only now, only temporary. The goal is not ‘fixing’ or ‘making better.’”
“The idea that difficult feelings are not permanent is a really important thing for kids to know. Because when you’re really in it, you’re just so stuck. And you don’t realize that it’s going to pass like the weather, like clouds,” says Kama.
I asked Kama what she learned from the show’s research about foster children.
She replied, “That we are all more resilient than we know and that you can build resilience, like a muscle you can develop.
I also learned that the protective factor in trauma is the power of the one caring adult in a child’s life—what a game changer it can be to have that consistent presence.
“I also learned a lot about how healing takes place in the context of human relationships. I’d never thought of why talking about your feelings, and telling your story, and interacting with others was so important to healing. Like, why is therapy the way people heal? I didn’t really get why that is.”
Kama points out that the Sesame Street materials alone can’t help a kid.
“They need a caring adult to help them through this site, to read them the stories, and do the activities and sing the songs with them. They’re not going to watch TV alone and get the benefits.”
Kama says her job as a writer for Sesame Street is important because children are shaped so much by what happens in their lives up to age 6.
“I care about kids learning to read and about building empathy and resilience and compassion in children. Building those things nurtures great citizenship behaviors so that there’s a better world.”
The Muppets have touched so many lives, including mine, and Kama takes her responsibility seriously.
“These are important public figures! It’s like writing speeches for the president. Elmo’s the president for kids.”