Think of the Parents!

Really, kid-show scandals are rarely about the kids

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Illustration by Lincoln Agnew for TIME; Clash: Tanner Curtis for TIME; Boy: Getty Images

Like any good 21st century American parent, I came to develop a healthy loathing for the voice of Elmo at some point in my sons' toddlerhood. He squeaked from the TV. He squealed from talking books. One Elmo guitar toy, somewhere in a bin behind the couch, would begin singing of its own accord late at night, a babyish, high-pitched wail of the damned.

So when I heard Elmo on a float in this year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade singing "Nothing's gonna bring us down!" I was surprised to find myself tearing up a little. This time, it was not from sleep deprivation. For contrary to the lyrics, Elmo's puppeteer, Kevin Clash, had just been brought down--by allegations that years ago he had sex with teenage boys. Days before the parade, he resigned from Sesame Workshop after 28 years there.

Why would I get choked up over a sappy song from a Muppet I never loved, sung in the recorded voice of a puppeteer I never knew? My kids aren't affected by the story; they've long since moved on to Phineas and Ferb. In a way, that's exactly the reason I teared up. They're getting older. I'm getting older. Elmo is another marker of time rushing past, a memory--easier to idealize now that we've unloaded all those squawking Elmo toys, scuffed up by contact with the real world.

This is the secret of most children's-TV scandals. They're not about the need to protect kids but about the need to protect parents--from awkwardness, from sadness, from threats to their romanticized memories of childhood.

We don't--and may never--know whether Clash committed a crime, whether he struck up any relationships with minors knowingly or unknowingly. (He acknowledged one relationship but said it began when the teen was over the age of consent.) But we do know that the accusations involve teens, not Sesame Street--age children, and none involved Clash's accessing kids through his work. Yet unproven accusations were enough to force him out, while grownups' stars like Chris Brown and Charlie Sheen enjoy thriving careers years after proven offenses.

There's a history of swift judgment of kids'-show stars found guilty of having sex lives. Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) was busted at a porn theater in 1991, which damaged his career and led CBS to pull reruns of the brilliant, smut-free Pee-wee's Playhouse. In 2006, PBS fired the host of a show for preschoolers because she had appeared in a sex-education PSA parody years before. Neither of those controversies would ever register with the kid audience. How many 3-year-olds are scouring YouTube for obscure sex-parody videos? And they were far different from, say, the recent posthumous charges of child rape against BBC presenter Jimmy Savile. Like the kindergarten teacher who posts wild party photos on Facebook, all these incidents did was make some moms and dads feel icky.

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