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What Is It About Elmo That Makes Children Love Him So?

New York — If you have a child between the ages of 1 and 4 who has ever watched TV, had a play date, gone to daycare or preschool or been inside a toy store, he or she is probably obsessed with Elmo. My son first showed symptoms at 10 or 11 months, when I picked him up from daycare one day and saw him gleefully riding an Elmo car. For the first time in his life, he looked disappointed to see me.

What is it with kids and that round-headed, perpetually grinning creature? Why does his giggle elicit such blood lust that parents feel the need to trample and break the ribs of toy store employees to get their hands on his latest signature toy?

There are undoubtedly many reasons for his appeal, but the most important one is simple: Elmo is much like your little angel. I don’t mean to imply that your child is a muppet; I mean that Elmo almost perfectly captures a toddler’s approach to and outlook on the world. He is “just like toddlers who are in a exploratory stage of life, like little scientists, trying out and exploring what is around them, delighting in it,” explains Tovah Klein, director of the Center of Toddler Development at Barnard College in New York City. And we all love characters we can relate to.

Sesame Street muppets have distinct personalities and functions. Cookie Monster is the impulsive guy. Grover sets his sights high but is not so good at following through. In the early 1980s, Sesame Street content developers realized that they didn’t yet have a preschool character, so they devised a list of attributes that they felt described the prototypic preschool child — “curious, open-minded, fun, loves to learn new things, very optimistic, happy-go-lucky,” explains Rosemarie Truglio, vice president of education and research at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street — and they mixed them all together to create Elmo, who first appeared on the show in 1985.

It’s not just that Elmo goes about his business like a toddler; he is also about as knowledgeable as a preschool child. He doesn’t know what big words mean and sometimes doesn’t know how to pronounce them, which kids may find comforting and amusing. “Elmo spends much of his time approaching new things or situations,” Klein explains. “He tries something out and makes mistakes; he doesn’t know how something works or what it does.” It’s nice for kids to see other young characters who are as clueless as they are. Yet Elmo never gets frustrated or angry, and this incessant optimism is probably also appealing. Research suggests that seeing others smile and laugh can make us happier and healthier, too.

Elmo’s speech patterns are also immensely important. His jabber mimics “mother-ese” — it is high pitched with dragged out vowels and exaggerated inflections — which helps kids identify Elmo as someone they should listen to. “The style of it is very much, ‘this is for you,’” says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, director of the Infant Language Laboratory at Temple University in Philadelphia. He refers to himself in the third person (Guess what Elmo’s thinking about today?) which is how many young kids first learn to talk about themselves. Elmo also talks directly to kids and tries to engage them, but in a respectful way. Other television shows, such as Dora the Explorer and Blue’s Clues, encourage viewer participation, but they do so somewhat forcefully, incorporating pregnant pauses during which kids are supposed to respond. Elmo’s World, the Sesame Street segment that premiered in 1999, doesn’t do this. Instead, the show invites kids to join in Elmo’s adventures without “(making) children feel awkward if they choose not to,” Truglio says.