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Free the Cookie Monster! (and kids, while we’re at it)

C is for Cookie. That’s good enough for me.

But it’s not good enough for PBS anymore, who recently decided that C is for Celery, Cabbage, Cucumber, Cantaloupe, Carrot, and Cauliflower, too.

It’s part of Sesame Street’s new focus on children’s health and their efforts to fight the rampant American obesity epidemic. If you’ve seen any statistics on the subject (especially those showing a massive spike in childhood diabetes cases) you know it’s a terrific goal, of course. Only Wendy, the Burger King, and Ronald McDonald should be excused from offering it their full support.

But there’s right ways and wrong ways to go about pursuing a goal, and one way PBS has chosen is just utterly, completely, wrong: they’ve de-Cookied the Cookie Monster.

Gone are the days when the Cookie Monster would gleefully tear through an entire plate of chocolate-chips. Gone is the trademark “C is for Cookie” song.

In its place? Learning about fruits and veggies and a new song titled… it hurts to type this… “A Cookie is a ‘Sometimes’ Food.”

Ye gods. Next thing we know Oscar will be strumming a guitar and kids will gather ’round his trash can to sing along to “Wheels on the Bus.” Big Bird’ll die his feathers black, and Elmo won’t be aggravating to anyone over the age of 3. Total chaos, I’m telling you.

What PBS seems to miss here is that they’re fundamentally altering–this is not an exaggeration–a beloved American icon. Eating cookies at any and all times is what defines the Big C. If the Cookie Monster can say “No thank you” to a steaming hot batch of homemade oatmeal raisin…well, either he’s a monster for something else or he’s not a monster at all.

The former would be worse, I think. “R is for Rice Cake, it’s palatable enough for me” would be the saddest song on earth. But either way, he’s not Cookie Monster anymore.

And why stop here? I hear other childhood touchstones are undergoing a makeover to help turn kids onto eating healthier:

* Santa Claus will no longer be a fat, jolly old man. He’ll weigh a trim 177 pounds, deliver toys as soon he gets done blending a yogurt smoothie, and replace his boots with a $200 pair of New Balance cross-trainers. He’ll still wear a bright red suit, but it’ll be the 80s-era jogging outfit Ben Stiller wore in “The Royal Tenenbaums.”

* The game “Hungry, Hungry Hippos” will be replaced by “No Thanks, I Ate Already Hippos,” in which the object is not to have your hippo eat as many marbles as possible, but to eat one or two and then reflect on how no matter how shiny, round, and white those marbles might be, your hippo doesn’t want to eat anymore.

* The Easter Bunny will enter into an exclusive partnership with Egg Beaters brand egg substitute, a subdivision of ConAgra Foods, to brighten each and every child’s Easter morning with a full 16 oz. carton of Egg Beaters. Egg Beaters: Taste the Healthy Side of Eggs!

Look, I know kids need to watch their weight, and PBS should certainly be applauded for trying to make yet another positive difference in their young viewers’ lives. But this new character is not the Cookie Monster my parents sat me down to watch, not the one I grew to love, not the one I’m sure kids across the country love right now. Was it worth it?

I say no. For starters, the whole have-a-popular-kids’-character-promote-healthy-food thing isn’t exactly new. Ask any kid who’s ever choked down a forkful of spinach expecting their forearms to instantly grow to the size of hams. Here’s the thing: how many kids asked for a second helping of spinach?

Promote all you want, PBS, but I don’t think there’s a soul under 12, not even the president of the Cookie Monster Fan Club, that’s going to reach for a pear when there’s Chips Ahoy to be had. I was a big Transformers fan growing up, but if Optimus Prime himself knocked on the door, tossed me a can of lima beans, and said “Eat up,” I’d still just have to tell him how incredibly full I was.

Now, if he’d told me to go outside and play? That might sound like a good idea. The new health-conscious programming on Sesame Street will reportedly encourage kids to get off their butts and get some exercise, but as soon as PBS runs a sketch telling kids “Look, English peas are wonderful, really!” they won’t have encouraged as much as they should.

Secondly, I’m not sure PBS isn’t selling kids a little short. I think just about every kid from kindergarten up has seen one of those horrible food pyramids, the ones that recommend like 276 servings of vegetables per day but say sweets should be eaten

“rarely.” Kids know on gut instinct alone, I believe, that apples and oranges are better for them than chocolate; they just don’t care.

And I for one am not sure they should. In many ways, our country is asking its children to grow up awful quick. Homework levels are at an all-time high. Prodigies in sports and music have more and more serious competition earlier and earlier in life. Education, period, is beginning earlier and earlier, as many parents enroll children as young as three in kindergarten programs. In short, childhood is more organized, more scheduled, more timetabled than it’s ever been.

This is the biggest reason why the new version of the Cookie Monster should be scrapped. Kids are already being asked to think and behave and compete like adults; they shouldn’t have to worry about eating like them, too.

PBS is absolutely right to fight against obesity and disease, and parents must take better care of their children’s dietary needs. But it shouldn’t come at the cost of joining the parade of pressures that turn children into grown-ups before they’re ready. Kids love the Cookie Monster–heck, I love the Cookie Monster–because, when it comes to eating habits, he’s a kid himself. Kids shouldn’t have to grow up right away, and neither should he.

If PBS continues to make him eat his vegetables, though…well, C is for Criminal. It’s not good enough for me.

Jerry Hinnen is a staff writer for the Demopolis Times. You can reach him at jerry.hinnen@demopolistimes.com or by calling (334) 289-4017.