Future Tense

A 4½-Year-Old’s Honest Review of the Sesame Street Vaccine Town Hall

That’s who it was for, anyway. (Right?)

A Zoom screen with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Big Bird, Erica Hill, Elmo, and Rosita.
Photo illlustration by Slate. Screenshot via CNN.

“Is all of this show going to be like this, with the persons talking like this?” J., age 4½, asks, gesturing toward the screen.

On our television, Sanjay Gupta and Erica Hill are hanging out in Zoom-style boxes, interviewing a rotating series of guests for their Sesame Street/CNN town hall on COVID vaccines for kids. J. started out jazzed up and laughing, happy that I was allowing her to watch Sesame Street, a show she loves, at an unusual time of day. We get some Street regulars like Elmo, Bert, and Ernie; some real-life kids who submitted taped questions for the panel; and some scientists and doctors, like Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and the researcher who helped design the Moderna COVID vaccine, Kizzmekia Corbett.* But 10 minutes into the half-hour show, J. wants to fast-forward and see if things would stay Zoom-y for the duration. Denied this petition (“Remember? I have to watch this for work?”), she goes to the floor and, scattering crumbs from a piece of toast, attends to her train set, glancing at the screen whenever it’s a puppet’s turn to talk.

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This town hall, which aired on CNN over the weekend, prompted a rote, exhausted culture-war skirmish. People like Ted Cruz got really mad that Big Bird was “pushing” vaccines on kids. “What’s the treatment for myocarditis in birds?” snarked Mike Cernovich, while everyone on the other side valiantly, yet uselessly, replied with: information about the safety of children’s COVID vaccines; images from past vaccine campaigns that had enlisted popular children’s media to “sell” the polio and MMR vaccines (and the very idea of germs); and links to articles about Sesame Street’s roots as a radical experiment aimed at Black kids. This argument is going to happen, and happen, and happen, until we are tweeting links about Dr. Seuss’ actual IRL politics in between manually pollinating soybeans for 12-hour shifts in exchange for rations of water, and it doesn’t seem much worthy of comment.

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Besides, anyone tweeting about the town hall was not in its target audience. But I had one of those actual preschool humans in my own home, and I wanted to know: Would this special actually do anything for her? Rather than fighting over whether it’s just propaganda, my question was: Would it be effective propaganda? I’m always wary of educational media for kids, always wondering whether the show, museum exhibit, or book is actually for the children, or instead for the adults, who feel better after watching the kid reluctantly consume something so virtuous. Curious, I decided to conduct my own focus group of one.

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J. wiggles the whole time through, but that’s her natural state these days and doesn’t tell me much. The adults on screen, smiling broadly and condescendingly, do some explaining. What does a vaccine do inside your body? (It trains “teeny-tiny helpers” to fight off invaders.) How did the scientists make the vaccine? (Corbett had a weird answer to this, though I’m not really sure it could have been better: “Scientists found out over tons of years of research that if you put two components together you can make a really good vaccine. The first part is just a message that goes to your body to tell your body how to fight COVID. The second component is a ball of fat. So you get a message wrapped in a ball of fat, and that ball of fat allows for that vaccine to go into your arm safely.” Sounds kind of weird and gross, but J. is too busy separating clementine wedges and wiping her hands on the rug to respond.) Why do you have to take two shots to be protected? (Gupta uses an umbrella to demonstrate this visually: The closed umbrella over his head, “the first shot,” offers some protection from the rain; the open umbrella offers more.) Why should kids get shots, despite generally having good outcomes when they get COVID-19? (Some intentionally unalarming and vague mentions of MIS-C, a reference to possible transmission to adults in their lives, who might be hit harder.)

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I do applaud the special’s impulse to address vaccine hesitancy head-on, but its advice feels insufficient for kids whose parents are hesitant or resistant—or whose friends’ parents are hesitant or resistant. The vaccine discourse has been hot and heavy, and it feels like kids may have a few more questions than what’s addressed here. (Like, why is everyone so mad all the time?) It turns out providing mildly patronizing advice to kids scared of shots (do you really take along a horse stuffie when you need to get an injection, Sanjay Gupta?) is a lot easier than talking to them about our partisan divides.

Big Bird starts out the episode a little anxious, wondering why he should get the shot; his grandma comes on and, likewise, voices her doubts. Big Bird wonders: “What is a vaccine?” (Grover pretends to mishear: “I would love to talk about vacuums.” That got a little chuckle from J.) Abby Cadabby has a cameo: “The letter of the day is Q, and that stands for Question!” Throughout, there’s a lot of bland acclaim for the very impulse to ask questions, which is a proper message for kids (yes! please! be curious!), but it hits different in our context, when so many people use  “just asking questions” to cover for already-held beliefs that they have no intention of changing.

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Oliver from California, age 9, asks on video: “I’m worried about some of my friends who plan to not be vaccinated. What should I do? What should I say?” The panel replies with something vague (and fairly useless, I’d say, for a 9-year-old trying to sort this one out) about different families making different decisions. There’s a query about whether the shot means kids will be able to take off masks at school, to which Murthy replies that it’s a “wait and see” situation. “It’s so great when we can ask our questions,” Hill smiles, and I’m overdosing on saccharine. By the end, Big Bird and his grandma have decided to go ahead.

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Special over, child absolutely alive with fidgeting, I want to know if anything got through.

“What’d you think?” I ask J.

Shrug.

“What is a vaccine?”

“It’s a shot!”

“How does it work in your body?”

“It makes hell-fee fings go in!” (When she stops saying her th’s as f’s, I’m going to cry.)

“How did they make it?”

Shrug.

“Does it make kids sick?”

“No.”

“Why should kids get it?”

“To stay hell-fee and not die!” (Nobody speaking on this special said thing one about anybody dying.)

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“What should you do if you’re scared to get a shot?”

“Hold onto a parent, or have a stuffie to hold onto.” (OK, I’ll give it to you, Gupta; that horse made an impression.)

“Did you learn anything else?”

“No.”

“When will you be able to get the COVID shot, since you’re not 5 yet?”

“It will be a while time before I can.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because they’re studying it.” (Nice.)

“When will you be able to stop wearing a mask at school?”

“When I get my COVID vaccine!”

Ah, well, nevertheless.

Correction, Nov. 9, 2021: This article originally misspelled Kizzmekia Corbett’s first name.

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