sun 14/07/2024

The Secret Life of 5 Year Olds, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

The Secret Life of 5 Year Olds, Channel 4

The Secret Life of 5 Year Olds, Channel 4

Knee-high humans provide a first-class lesson in life

These children are a class act

Kids today eh? Eh? Ask them what they want to be and they’ll probably reply, “famous” or “rich.” I mean, really… what do they aspire to? What do they want? Wearable tech and a free pass to the Boot Camp stage of The X Factor at a guess. Tell you what, let's ask five-year-old Emily. "Emily, what do you want to be when you grow up?" "A jelly maker. A pencil sharpener!" Ooooooookay. I wasn’t expecting that. Good answer. I hope, one day, she achieves her dream.

For now though, she and her band of knee-high humans are too busy restoring my faith in humanity.

The Secret Life of 5 Year Olds isn’t a startlingly new concept, it’s basically Big Brother, only populated by people who are acting like a bunch of kids precisely because they are a bunch of kids. It looks at how social skills change us from inward looking balls of ME! to empathetic adults, rather than documenting the aftermath of this process’s abject failure.

Alfie locked horns with George, using all the negotiating skill of a despot annexing Eastern Europe

Having already attended a summer school stuffed full of cameras for a week, the children returned to have their every move monitored by Professor Paul Howard-Jones and Dr Elizabeth Kilbey. After some joyous reunions, they got down to the business of serious play.

The play in question was all focused around finding your place within a social group, and understanding that the needs of others matter. This is, of course, a key life skill – unless you aspire to be on the Tory front bench or a Daily Mail columnist, in which case any comprehension of compassion would prove a terrible and insurmountable burden.

These are tricky concepts for young minds to grasp, and occasionally they simply didn’t bother. After Alfie’s unwittingly aggressive pursuit of potential playmate Amelia, he locked horns with amiable Essex boy George, using all the negotiating skill of a despot annexing Eastern Europe. This is all to do with the different rates at which we develop empathy (or “Theory of Mind” as the doctors called it). It ended in some truly terrific “did/didn’t” to and fro before an impressive sight gag from Alfie as he held a ‘stop’ sign in front of his face.

One of the best aspects of The Secret Life… is that we didn’t just see these interactions in isolation – we got to see the fallout too. In this case it was George choosing to distance himself from the group. Later, when the children brought in food for a lunchtime sharing menu, none of them wanted to try his “Essex Noodles”. He was left sobbing. “I made it by myself,” he said. At least I think that’s what he said ­– I was in streams of tears myself at this point so my recall isn’t what it might be. Watching him take control of the group in a football-themed task later in the show was one of the most genuinely feelgood moments of factual TV I’ve seen all year.

For the rest of the show, I was reduced to a ludicrous, heaving, blubbing mess. When a painting exercise designed specifically to test the children’s social skills and understanding of each other ended in tears, I was with him all the way. As Arthur and Sienna declared, “We’re wedding people,” and played out the early stages of their relationship to a soundtrack of Emily stumbling around, shouting, “I’ve gone blind, I can’t see!” I was crying with laughter. Later, when Alfie and Emily (pictured above) declared their love for each other and said they’d be friends forever, tears streamed down my face like an Oscar-winner peeling onions. I’m welling up even at the memory of it.

But what have we learned? We’ve learned that traits such as selfishness and solipsism are often necessary emotional starting points. We've learned that children have to learn how to look outside of themselves. The real success of The Secret Life… however, is to show us that childhood hasn’t really changed that much. The actual business of being a child, of learning to build and develop friendships that are lasting and meaningful, is much as it always has been. And that’s a first-class lesson.   

One of the best aspects of The Secret Life… is that we didn’t just see interactions in isolation – we got to see the fallout too


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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