Denver Bar Association
May 2007
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7 Questions About the Innocence of a Child and Compassion with Caroll Spinney

by Matthew Crouch

Best known for the voices of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street, author-artist-puppeteer Caroll Spinney has been a solid force in children’s programming for more than four decades. He has traveled the world as Big Bird, won Grammys and Emmys, and was named a Library of Congress’s Living Legend. Life was not always feathers and trash cans, though. Spinney served in the Air Force and worked various jobs in art and animation, and worked characters for Bozo’s Big Top in Boston. Spinney and his wife Debra live in New England and have three children and three grandchildren. For more information, go to Photo (c) (2007) Sesame Workshop. "Sesame Street " and its logo are trademarks of Sesame Workshop. All rights reserved.

Denver Docket: How important is innocence of children?

Caroll Spinney: That is something that I harp a lot about. I think an awful amount of television has strongly contributed to what I call the "coarsening of America." Innocence is a treasure. I am not saying that we should all be goody-two-shoes, but children don’t know of certain awful things. It is a statement of where they are at mentally. There is a lot of stuff that I would not want a 6- or 10-year-old child to hear —television talks so bluntly about sex, for instance. Or, dating in sitcoms. It gets laughs, but it cheapens the whole thing, especially when the child thinks that is okay. I have seen some evening TV shows that I wouldn’t want my 9-year-old niece to see. Childhood should last as long as possible. I think a compassion for innocence is something every one should have.

DD: Is that innocence something one can regain?

CS: I think not. I remember seeing a really adult film when I was only 19. After the movie, I couldn’t get it out of my mind — even at that age there is innocence. Once you see that world, you always know it. I am not saying that there should be censorship, but I think the innocence of childhood is a treasure that is lost too soon. It behooves us as adults to treasure children’s innocence, as it should last a long time.

DD: You mentioned compassion. What is compassion to you?

CS: I really hadn’t thought about compassion until I came across a little old man that needed help. All I did was help him across the street and several blocks to his door. I thought "Gee, what a simple thing that was." And I felt great because of it. Compassion is helping a little bit, even in the simplest ways. When you can do something like that, the feeling of reward in your heart is beyond comparison to anything else.

DD: Is it easy for two complete strangers to show compassion to one another?

CS: Yes, I think so. Sometimes people laugh when it is obvious that someone is having difficulties. Maybe it just means that you turn around, go back and hold that door open for a second. This is the simplest form of compassion.

DD: Do you think there are difficult forms of compassion?

CS: I think some require a lot more self-sacrifice. For instance, I have some friends who dish out food for homeless people in New York every other weekend. To me, that is far more effectively compassionate than I have been, although I think that everybody can do something, just the smallest thing.

DD: Have you seen the effects of compassion on the world?

CS: Sometimes you hear of awful things that happen and you think there is certainly not enough compassion in the world. Entire nations can have compassion or not have it. The world doesn’t find enough compassion for the dying, dead and poor because it might go against certain religious or political beliefs. I’m amazed that some people live their lives with religion being of the greatest examples of what they feel they are, and yet they don’t demonstrate much compassion at all. The world doesn’t have enough compassion for itself, parts of Africa, or even here in New York, because there is no oil there. I am not trying to get political, but compassion can be national or individual or a whole group of people doing things that are kind and compassionate. I think the world should demonstrate more of it.

DD: What is your favorite law and why?

CS: Two stories come to mind. One is about Captain Cook, who lost his life because of our rules. Hawaiian custom says that if you see a boat, you can use it to go out to fish. A Hawaiian took one of Captain Cook’s boats and went out fishing. When the Hawaiian came back, Captain Cook demanded that he be punished by lashing — he tried to apply a law that didn’t exist there. The Hawaiians rose up and killed Captain Cook and many of his men.

The other is about Iran. I read that Iranians are very good salespeople who travel the world. When these salespeople return, if someone is living in their apartment or house, they can’t get them out. They don’t have strong laws of ownership in Iran. We need order. I think a strong law is ownership: when you own something, you own it and nobody can just take it away. I really feel that the law of ownership is one of the small steadying factors in this world.

Matthew Crouch is an attorney with Riggs Abney Neal Turpen Orbison & Lewis. To contact him, e-mail

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