The Secret Life of 4 and 5 Year Olds, Dr Sam Wass Interview

Category: News Release

What can we expect from this series?

For the 5-year-olds one of the themes was identity. In particular, we looked at the clashes between who we are and who we want to be. Children at this age are just starting to work out who they are; they’re just starting school, which is when we suddenly start to notice much more differences between ourselves and others. This sparks of a lot of internal self-discovery. We also become much more aware of what we like and don’t like. We also look at anxiety, and bravery. And we look at those who naturally have very strong personalities, which helps in some situations but not in others. And, with the 4 year olds, we look at coping with difference - because this year we had a mixture of children who were naturally very different to one another, to start with. 

It’s also a new filming location this year - we have a beautiful and very mixed play area, which has given something for everyone.

What balance do you look for with the kids?

We try to get an honest representative example. Something that’s really hard is that a lot of children, just like a lot of adults, are naturally introverted so take longer to open up. A lot of TV tends to focus on the extrovert personalities. But we make an effort not to just go for extroverts but also the more sensitive, quieter ones. It’s important, we think, to get a representative sample. But also it benefits us, too. It’s just like real life: the people who make the biggest impression when you first meet them aren’t necessarily the ones that you find most interesting when you get to know them better. Children naturally develop at different rates so there are big gaps between the children in terms of their language and self-regulation ability, and ability to work in teams. Girls’ vocabulary tends to be a lot larger than boys’, but we don’t select for language.

What are the most memorable moments from this series?

There were quite a few. The children you remember are those you identify with. In making all these programs you see so many different elements of your own personality in these children. This teaches you a lot about yourself. The child I related to most was Daisy, who was incredibly strong willed and determined. When the group was given a task, she didn’t want to be doing the same thing as everyone else - she liked doing her own thing. I’m exactly the same. At times the other children were drawn to her, but at other times it made it really tough for her - so there really is a flip side to strength of character.

Another child, Nathan, taught me more about how adults interact with children. He was naturally very fearful. Of all the children over the series, he had the biggest development over the week, with the help of his new friend Ralphy. He spent a lot of day one going around looking for spiders webs in the playground, saying how scared he was of spiders. But by day five he let a tarantula crawl all over him! Adults naturally want to protect kids and praise them for taking small steps whereas Ralphy was rubbishing everything Nathan did, which had an amazing effect on him. What seemed to benefit Nathan was not to be patronised, and have a positive model, who was close to his developmental stage. It taught about anxiety and how we can help others who have it.  

Do all the experts usually agree?

We have very varying approaches. I do biological psychology so I look at physical stress in children. I put lots of sensors on their bodies to measure heart rate and skin temperature, and I explain things in terms of how stressed, tired or hungry they are - and how that impacts on how they interact with other children. Paul thinks of how children behave in terms of thoughts and feelings, so with us it’s body versus mind - although of course they’re both right - sometimes it’s just two different ways of explaining the same thing. Laverne, Shona and Elizabeth are all clinical and educational psychologists so they’re more focused on problem behaviours to watching children’s behaviour and saying whether it’s a cause for concern or not. Whereas Paul and I tend to see things much more in terms of dimensions, without a clear dividing line between what’s a problem and what’s not. So there are lots of really interesting conversations to have. 

 Why do we learn so much about ourselves from watching the show?

I continue to learn about myself, about different ways and aspects of my own personality and how that affects people around me. My favourite thing has always been the humour and how it explores themes that can sometimes be quite complex and dark themes - but in a very humorous way. 4-5 year old children are experiencing the same kinds of emotions we are as adults, but they often are experiencing them for the first time. This gives a real simplicity, and innocence to what is happening. They’re forming your own identity, which can start with very simple things like gender - we see them exploring that. It’s also that disjunction between who you are and who you want to be, which I see all the time in myself.

Which tasks stand out?

We have a big Mr. Whippy machine which started spewing ice cream uncontrollably, which makes this very hazardous messy environment that children react to in very different ways. We had a person dressed up as a giant 6ft Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur to see how the different children would react to it, which was fascinating. One child who thought he was tough, and the biggest dinosaur lover in the group, completely crumbled when he saw it. It’s one of those great tasks where you see this completely unexpected layer to the children. And there were lots of days when my  stomach was aching at the end of it, due to laughing so much - which is always a good sign.

How has the programme affected your own research?

Hugely. My research is based on the physiological stress and excitement in children but the traditional way we do it is take a child in to the lab on their own and do a series of tests looking at their stress levels and the differences between different children. But this programme has opened my eyes to how children are affected by their outside environment and the incredible changes that they go through - even during the course of a single day. We’re filming these children continually, even at lunch. We’re watching them so closely, and have a separate microphone on each one. This means that we can be super tuned in to the little indicators, such as changes in their breathing, that give you a clue as to what the child is really thinking. And the amazing thing with children is that they experience life so intensely! You can be best friends, then worst enemies then best friends with someone within 20 minutes. As far as my research, it’s meant we don’t just take a single snapshot of the child; you look at these fluctuations in mood changes. And we look at context - how moving from a noisy environment to a quiet one will affect some children massively.  That’s what I’m looking to explore in my research.

Did you ever think this show would be so successful?

Paul and I love to look back on the pilot where we were sat on cardboard boxes filming it 4-5 years ago. C4 were unsure where to play it, so it nearly didn’t go out at all - but then the pilot episode went out, and it got this amazing audience - the highest single rating documentary that year. It’s been a massive hit since then. A lot of people just see children as children but we’ve consciously set out to find elements of ourselves that we recognise in these children. We show the similarities between how adults and children experience the world. And we point to the behaviours - like the urge to be the centre of attention or to yearn for someone just because they’re unavailable - that children show, but adults still show, too. And what’s so powerful is that they’re experiencing these complex, adult emotions for the first time. We’re never going to run out of interesting things to look at because of the variety of 4 and 5 year old children out there, who are every bit as rich and varied as the variety of adults. New personalities and issues come up all the time, and the more programmes we make, the more we see.