“The Secret Life of Four Year Olds” on Ch4 was a delightful, insightful documentary about how four years old tick. As a content creator for pre-school television, I’ve long been wondering whether we’re getting it right in terms of what we’re required to dish up to our audience. This programme raised that question once again for me. And it’s one that is beginning to be asked increasingly by people far more important and influential than I am, because – well – times change and so does education theory.
So in this documentary we had four year olds red in tooth and claw. There were several references to DEATH from the kids. “Did you die then?” One asked matter of factly. They pushed and shoved one another. They burst into tears. They squabbled. They failed to negotiate. They were manipulative, competitive, inventive, idle, greedy, loving, shy and confident in equal measure. Why? Because they were real kids and this was real life. They ran the gamut of emotions. All perfectly normal.
Now we’re always encouraged to create content for pre-schoolers that “reflects their lives.” It all has to be relatable. Quite right. So even if characters are abstract creatures, or animals or adults – like Bob the Builder, they must be imbued with the same (allegedly) child-like qualities that a four year old (allegedly) recognises in themselves. But, alongside this, we are restricted by some kind of ideology, that states that we can’t show conflict or any really raw emotion. So no drama then. So no jeopardy. So no real story. It’s all tempered. And we mustn’t have characters demonstrate “negative behaviours.” This is, of course, an American saying but the ethos is not restricted to our chums across the pond. We’re infected with it here in Europe too. The idea that no child should ever be put under any stress; that no child should be made to do things that pressurise them in any way; that children should “lead” their own learning; that the word “NO” is a dirty one – all this has been going on in schools for decades now. All in all this philosophy promotes the notion that a child’s emotional boat should never EVER be rocked. Kids who were educated in this environment back in the seventies and eighties are now parents. So it’s self-perpetuating. But it’s starting to be challenged by the education lobby themselves. Dr Becky Parry, expert in Educational and Childhood Studies at the University of Leeds is not alone in challenging it. There’s a definite move towards more emotional risk taking. And that’s not to say that we go frightening the life out of them. It’s about authenticity.
I used to play it all by the book when working on pre-school scripts for TV. For years I embraced the ideology which the Disney Channel still expounds quite openly. In a nutshell, it’s this – “We are writing about the world as we want it to be, not about the world as it is.” Well – you know where you are with it, don’t you? I allowed myself to be convinced that this was a good thing for the young audience and, in fairness, it is quite possibly a good thing for the VERY young audience. I was seduced by the ideology because it appeared to carry some “educational” weight. But also, as a gun for hire writer, you have to do what you’re told or you’re fired. And I was fired of course – once I began to question the theory. But I’m not shy in putting my hand up to say that I’ve changed my view.
At the CMC a few years back there was a session on risk taking. I went along thinking it would be about taking risks with story – i.e. writing more emotionally challenging content, particularly for the 4 – 6 yr old TV audience. It wasn’t. It was about compliance. So it was focussed on what we shouldn’t show on TV for fear of children copying – kids climbing trees, kids poking their heads out of windows, kids playing in the park without a “carer” in shot etc. One panel member, however, was there to expound the benefits of allowing kids to take more risks – more physical risks, that is. Since then, this policy of not over protecting our children and allowing them to DO more has noticeably been taken up by schools and, therefore, by parents. The same, perhaps, should now go for their emotional development.
If we’re genuinely going to reflect the lives of our audience, do we perhaps need to get a spot more veracity into our content? How can you help a child process a fear if you never show that fear? How are they ever going to be able to deal with the school bully if we’re not allowed to show them a school bully? One of the first duties of “art” (to give it a grandiose title) is to help you process emotions in a safe place, a fantasy place. It’s educative. The kids in the Ch 4 show were little parcels of anxiety. That’s what a four year old is. So are we lying to them when we dish up a load of relentlessly positive Polyanna content with no conflict and no real emotion?
The old chestnut goes that kids watch TV unsupervised so it has to be very risk averse. However parents also need to be parents and take some responsibility. And let’s just think about what four year old kids are REALLY watching? They’re watching Frozen, How to Train Your Dragon, all the Disney movies, Paddington etc. The level of drama and emotional risk in these films goes far beyond what they see on a pre-school TV channel. And you’re not telling me that parents don’t just stick a DVD or a download on and push off to the kitchen for a glass of wine. Of course they do! Kids watch these films ON THEIR OWN. And you know what? It’s just fine.
So I’ve blamed ideology for this. And I’ve pointed a finger at education. But let’s just cut to the chase now. This is as much about Broadcasters not wanting to take risks for fear of parents turning over to the other channel. You can’t blame the broadcasters – but let’s say it how it is because we’re actually all in this together. And the other elephant in the room is the finance model. More often than not, in order to fund your shows they have to conform to, what is essentially, a U.S. template – otherwise known as “global.” And the more “global” the more sanitised. When the BBC commissioned Grandpa in my Pocket we were lucky to be able to finance it all in the UK. The BBC was prepared to take a risk with the content – thank you – and we were, therefore, given the chance to break the rules. And we did. And it worked – possibly more by luck than judgement – but hey! We had “bad” characters, we had jeopardy, we had people getting their comeuppance. This is all rule breaking stuff. We didn’t have to sell it anywhere in the world – it would have been a very different show had that been the case. But we ended up selling it to 106 territories.
Television is the slave to three things – ratings, education and finance models. You can’t expect the broadcasters to be less risk averse until the parents have been re-educated into a different mind set by educationists. But at least let’s start the conversation because emotional risk taking is vital to a child’s development. We all want to connect with our audience, we have a real duty to do so and TV is a brilliant platform on which to do it.