“Hello, This is the President of the USA talking. A fire?! I’ll be there straight away. After I make myself a cake. Bye, Bye!” George 5
We all know that kids say the funniest things, but do we really understand what they are trying to tell us? Creator of the much-loved TV show, The Secret Life of 4,5 and 6 Year Olds Teresa Watkins is helping parents solve the riddles of understanding the science behind their child’s behaviour and here reveals why so much of what we learn in the playground is carried into our adult lives…
I used to be enchanted by the way my four-year-old saw the world, the things they would say, and would write it all down. Such as, “How long does it take a cloud to get to America, Mummy?” At this age children are on the cusp of discovery, they’ve maybe been to nursery but haven’t yet embarked into a daily circle which is just their peers, i.e. school. It’s a really fascinating age as kids are taking all the ideas that they’ve gleaned from their four years on the planet with their family and using those to try and understand the great big world around them. But their comments aren’t just hilarious, there’s also a real truth about them.
By the time we reach adulthood, the way we thought as a child is a distant memory, with most of us remembering only key stand-out moments from our early years which made a huge impression at the time, like a much-longed for new bike at Christmas or our first day of school. The reason is most likely to be sensory overload, learning so much in such a short space of time. The scientists we work with on the show explain that the activity happening inside a toddler’s brain is phenomenal. When a child is born it has more neurons than the Milky Way and is making connections at an astonishing rate. Every time a three or four-year-old does something it creates a new pathway in their brain. When they do it again, those pathways become fixed and become part of the child’s learning. As a parent, I find that very reassuring to know that if your child is having a huge tantrum because you won’t let them have another piece of chocolate, that is just their brain rewiring. Yesterday they might have accepted it nicely but today, they’ve forgotten that pathway and gone down another. It’s completely normal and just the way kids learn. If you put all those childhood experiences together, there’s probably no way our memories could contain it all. There’s a cutoff point at about four years old which is most likely why this is the age the majority of us recall our first memory. I have a theory that that’s why the programme has touched such a cord in people… one of the reactions to the series I love most is when adults say, “That child was me!”
I don’t think, even as parents, we can begin to imagine the emotional roller coaster children experience every day of their lives. They’re being put in new situations all the time that they don’t necessarily have the social skills to cope with. The way a four-year-old makes a friend is to command, ‘Be my friend!’ By the time a child is five they can spot another in the group with whom they have a connection, e.g. they both like playing the same game. By six it’s different again. One thing you might see and hear children around this age doing is being very competitive and eyeing each other up a lot. As parents we are always trying to keep ourselves young for our children but one of the funniest conversations I’ve ever heard was a group of six-year-olds competing over whose mum was the oldest. One mum’s age was fast-forwarded to 101 in their efforts to outdo each other! However one thing we must try to remember is that within the space of one day a child can be finding new friends, falling out and making up again… it’s constantly up and down and emotionally exhausting! We often expect more of our children than we probably should. After all, a four-year-old child is still only learning empathy, how to recognise how someone else feels, sympathise and react accordingly. They don’t start off knowing that what’s in their head is the same as what’s in someone else’s head. Just imagine trying to have friends without understanding how they feel or what’s going on for them. It’s almost impossible!
There are a number of methods teachers use to improve social interaction that we can also implement as parents. A brilliant tip is to only give out a limited number of items for an activity between a larger group of children so that they are forced to share. As a parent or grandparent you are always tempted to try and make sure there is enough to go around, but in fact if you only give out two pairs of scissors between four children, it gives you such a good opportunity to praise them for pro-social behaviour e.g. being kind and thoughtful. Teachers create social learning situations like these all the time. On the next occasion your child has a couple of friends over to play, try giving them only two cookies between three, leave the room, then listen behind the door to their conversation as they decide how to split them! It’s so revealing about how their little minds work. Another experiment which the scientists on the show suggest is the paperchain. Use a paperchain, just like you might make this Christmas, and attach each end to a child and their friend of the same age, telling them they will receive a special reward for not breaking the chain! Imagine the amount of skilled negotiation that will have to take place in order for them to agree on what to do. None of that comes naturally to children. We are all born thinking I’m the most important person on Earth and we only gradually learn that other people have wishes and desires too. Learning the art of compromise is a steep learning curve indeed.
The biggest lesson which I have learned and would like to share, is to just listen more to children. Really listen. There is so much more going on with them than we give them credit for than just saying cute things.
Channel 4’s award-winning documentary series returns from Tuesday November 7 at 8pm with two episodes revealing The Secret Life of 4 Year Olds and two uncovering The Secret Life of 5 Year Olds. The official companion book to the hit show is out now, hardback £16.99.