Big Bird -
Mutual Exclusivity , not Simultaneous Properties

Children desire to create a one to one relationship with labels to objects, events, and ideas. This can be observed in their literal interpretations and inability to understand figurative language. Is it underdeveloped language skills or underdeveloped logic? Lets explore an example that is described by Gladwell in his book Tipping Point (Page 113 - 114). Gladwell analyzes Sesame Street, as an example that "Tipped" and became a winner because of its fast moving format with short sketches and Muppet characters that delight children. He goes on to explain that not every episode was a winner. He claims the writer's insistence on being clever with the language was above the young viewer's ability to understand.

Sesame Street - Big Bird - Roy episode

In this episode Big Bird decided he wanted a name like everyone else.

[Big Bird greets a new mail carrier who hands him a package.]

Big Bird: "How did you know I was Big Bird?"

Mail Carrier: Well, you have to admit, it was pretty easy to figure out. [Gestures broadly at Big Bird]

Big Bird: [Looks at himself] Oh! I see. The package is for Big Bird, and I'm a big bird. I forget sometimes. I'm just what my name says. Big Bird is a big bird.

Big Bird becomes sad. He realizes that everyone else has a name - like Oscar, or Snuffy - but he has only a description. He asks the mail carrier what her name is. She says Imogene.

Big Bird: Gee, that's a nice name. [Looking to the camera, wistfully] I wish I had a real name like that. Instead of one that just says what I am, as if I were an apple or a chair or something.

Thereupon, begins a search by Big Bird for a new name. With the help of Snuffy, he canvases Sesame Street for suggestions, before settling on Roy.



However, the kids didn't get it.

They didn't like it?


Too conceptual?

Too abstract?

Developmentally inappropriate?

Does child development provide an explanation?

The developmental age targeted by Sesame Street - Children cannot understand that one thing can have two different names. For them everything is mutually exclusive. According to Gladwell, and developmental theory, the show failed because kids did not get the essential joke - Big Bird wants a real name not just to be known as a big bird. This kind of wordplay a preschooler simply doesn't understand.

Preschoolers assume words and their meaning are mutually exclusive.

Small children do not associate two different names to any one object. The conclusion is that if an object or person is given a second label, then that label must refer to something else. A secondary property or attribute of that object possibly, like the ball is red.

Developmentally - not appropriate.


Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes