The Secret Life of 4 and 5 Year Olds, Prof Paul Howard-Jones Interview


What can we expect from this series?

I was observing the four year olds, which I always find the best. It’s such a classic age because the children haven’t yet been strongly institutionalised by reception and they’re beginning to socialise, make friends and talk about everything. They’re not regulating strongly in the way they express themselves so it’s really raw and lively. We looked at the different ways in which children respond to uncertainty, particularly in social interactions. Some children become anxious about it, while others appear immune and settled into new social situations. For every individual there’s a balance of how much uncertainty we want in our lives, and young children are trying to find that optimum level between being excited and being afraid. It’s a risk asking people if they want to be your friends, especially when they appear very different to you.

Why do we find watching children of this age so fascinating?

I think part of it is we can see ourselves so much in these children. When we grow up we have to find ways of showing our emotions all the time – we won’t get on in life if we can’t. We’re also expected to become more focused and not walk into every room like it’s the first time and start exploring all the corners, textures, shapes and patterns we find there. As adults, we’re expected to know what we want to do in that room already – we go in with a plan because we’ve been in similar situations already - but actually that’s all a bit boring so it’s really exhilarating to feel like you’re amongst these 4-5 year olds. You’re channeling that naivety and feeling like you’re in these situations for the first time ever – the world is new!. And you also know exactly how they’re feeling. Our adult brains have developed to filter out so much of what’s going on both on the inside and outside worlds, but young children and feeling and experiencing so much more.

You said the first series was a revelation – why is that?

The first series I went in to looking for the science concepts, expecting to be able to explain pretty much everything that was happening. I had that naïve confidence of a scientist! But actually I was shocked by how difficult it was sometimes to understand and explain what was going on. Since then I look before I think a lot more; I’m more wary of drawing conclusions. The inherent complexity of the way in which children interact - we often underestimate the rate at which children are learning from each other. Ideas from the adult world are becoming involved in those thoughts as well, there’s not much about adult personality that isn’t already in the mix at 4-years-old. It is a fantastic opportunity to gain insight into how adult behavior comes about.

Have you learnt quite a lot about yourself through the process?

Yes, it’s caused me to focus a lot more on my emotional life. As a scientist, research has been increasingly telling us that you can’t separate emotion from thinking or cognition, there’s a very close connect there. If we close down our emotional centres in the brain, we’d become unable to make decisions. In fact, not being able to make decisions is one of the first effects of having damage to certain parts of our emotional processing systems. And when you’re seeing emotions in the raw and decisions being made about social relationships, hierarchies and sharing of resources, you become much more aware of one’s own emotional environment. You think about how you might have responded to someone at work or a friend, and how that’s influenced the way that things have gone.

Which characters should we watch out for?

There are so many characters. In the 4-year-olds we have a little girl who’s a cancer survivor and her responses and maturity in the way she handles emotions is quite inspiring. We also have a pretty full-on bromance, which I find fascinating as there’s a girl impacting on that relationship. You see the styles of friendship reflecting gender differences and the children having to juggle and negotiate different needs in different types of relationship. Watching 4-year-olds experimenting with opposite sex relationships raises the question as to whether they really can feel romantic love and I’ve shifted ground on that a bit. When I started off I saw it as just a storyline for play, something that was purely absorbed from the adult world. But I’m less willing to dismiss the possibility that there is some intense feeling involved in these early representations of romantic love. There’s still so much that we don’t understand about how we develop.

Do you normally agree with the other experts?

We all come from different scientific perspectives but we tend to usually end up at the same place in terms of our thinking. I paired up with Elizabeth and she will look at differences in behaviour as she has a wealth of knowledge about children with a variety of different developmental journeys. Whereas I’ll be thinking more about how children’s actions may reflect how their brain operates and their underlying biology. So when someone shares a toy with someone else, they might then also begin to share a conversation and so you might say “they’re less egocentric”, which is a very psychological explanation to what’s going on. From a biological point of view, sharing can produce a sense of trust, trust produces oxytocin, and that oxytocin can make it more likely the person who received the toy will share with the other person. So there there a social and biological way to explain a lot of what we see happen. But it’s not like one way is wrong and one is right – they’re just different ways of thinking about things. Since there isn’t a definitive single idea about how children develop, it’s important to have lots of views represented.

Have you had much feedback from parents?

People will come up to me in the street and say that they love the programme and watch it with their kids. It’s made me realise how Secret Lives has created a space for positive interactions between parents and children because there’s not always a lot that on TV they can happily watch together, and I really love that the programme provides that. One mum described it as her cuddle time, which I thought was really great. So if, as well as shedding light on children’s behaviour we’re also producing cuddle time, I’m very happy. I hope it’s opening up possibilities about how children’s behaviour can be interpreted. Not always seeing disruptive behaviour as purely naughtiness but perhaps causing adults to think a bit more about what might be behind it.

Are there any tasks that stood out for you?

One that I think parents will be really interested in is the effect of giving praise to children. This is quite topical in education at the moment because we’re very interested in resilience and why some children carry on struggling at something when others give up. Research shows how giving praise in different ways can influence children’s belief in their ability as something which is innate or something they can actually develop themselves. This seems related to whether you say to a child, ‘You’re brilliant’ or ‘Well done you worked really hard at that’. We tried this out and the results appeared to confirm the research. So when they fail at something, depending on how they’ve been praised they either think it’s because of who they are so there’s nothing they can do about it – or- it’s related to how much effort they’ve put in so they might need to put in a little bit more next time. That appears to affect their resilience. It’s not true that your brain has a limit to what you achieve – to a large extent, you are in charge of constructing your own brain, so having your efforts praised makes it more likely you will feel motivated to try harder when things later get more difficult.

How has this show changed your studies of children?

We have started to analyse the 1400 hours of dialogue from the last series and special at The University of Bristol and this is potentially such a rich source of data for scientists Those spontaneous conversations between children are normally incredibly difficult to capture for researchers so this is a really valuable opportunity for research as well. Only a small fraction of that dialogue that is recorded makes it on to the edited show so we have so much material to sift through now, which we are going through with a fine toothcomb to produce findings that we will hopefully take to publication. This scientific data has been a very valuable outcome of the project and I’m delighted that we have it.


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