Candid camera puts adults in kids' shoes
As Channel 4’s The Secret Life returns, show expert Dr Elizabeth Kilbey tells Jeananne Craig why she finds the series about children so captivating.
Psychologist Dr Elizabeth Kilbey is well used to working with children in everyday life, but in this new series she gets to do a David Attenborough and watch them from afar and unnoticed.
She says: "This show is the most golden opportunity for me - I learn something every single day. In my clinical work in my day-to-day job, I don't get to observe in such an uninfluenced way. Normally, if I'm doing a visit with a family or a school observation, the children can see me, I'm in the room. You still see useful and interesting things, but it does change the nature of what you're doing. Children are very savvy. We're trying to observe in the most naturalistic way, and really see what happens between children uninterrupted."
Kilbey is quick to add though that the children are aware they are being filmed.
"There's not a moment where they do not know what's happening, and that's really important because we're not trying to spy on them, we're trying to have a window into their world. The children definitely know the cameras are there. Sometimes they come up to the camera and say 'hi' to us.
"One of the children was playing in a tree house and her playmate had wandered off, so she went up to the camera and said, 'Hello, can you send someone new out please?' Do they play up to the cameras? Well, as much as they play up to an adult or anyone else. But they very quickly slip into being themselves."
She explains the series has helped extrapolate some psychological theories that weren't necessarily known about before.
"Paul and Sam [educational neuroscientist Dr Paul Howard-Jones and developmental psychologist Dr Sam Wass] have spoken a lot about the science to do with what we call Dandelions and Orchids - a way of understanding that how we are born influences how we relate to environments," says Kilbey. "We're beginning to understand it's the interplay between what you are born with genetically, your predispositions, and how that interacts with your environments. So it's dispelling the nature-nurture argument; it's nature and nurture. Dandelions are born with a more resilient temperament that can thrive in lots of different environments, Orchid children are hypothesised to have greater sensitivities or vulnerabilities to certain environments, and do well in certain settings but not others.
"But we can't make blanket sweeping statements; we might all have Orchid or Dandelion qualities that emerge in different settings. It's that very complex interplay we only really understand when we observe so acutely."
However, sophisticated some of the findings where, it seems even children can be predictable.
"We had a task where we gave the children digital babies - dolls that were programmed like babies," says Kilbey. "It was absolutely hilarious just watching them role-play adult roles. There were some fabulous stereotypes. One of my absolute favourites was one of the boys saying, 'I don't want to be the daddy, I want to be a dog', I was roaring with laughter. And there were girls pushing the pushchair saying, 'Come back here and help me.' When they show us a slight parody of how they perceive adults do things, you can't help but be amused. You think, 'From the mouth of babes.'"
And Kilbey says the programme reveals the unique nature of childhood.
"Children's lives are as rich as adult lives. I spend a lot of time as a developmental psychologist saying children are not mini-adults, they are developing people.
"They don't have all the skills and qualities of an adult distilled down - they are on a developmental journey from infancy up to adulthood.
"But they are also exposed to all the normal adult life experiences we have, and what makes it so poignant is that we are fully developed and managing these complexities of life, and they are still developing and managing them. I think that's why it touches us so much when we're watching it. We think, 'Okay, that would be tough for me, and I'm big'. We can really put ourselves in their shoes."
The Secret Life Of 4 & 5 Year Olds begins on Channel 4 on Tuesday at 8pm.