If you wanted a profound take on the way we treat gender as a society, you probably wouldn’t phone a 5-year-old kid. We don’t expect tiny humans to have particular insight into the way society works, but perhaps we should. The latest episode of The Secret Life of Five Year Olds on Channel 4 is a special on gender – and it’s particularly revealing. If you’re not familiar with the programme, Secret Lives is a little bit like Big Brother but with kids, tact and a group of on-site experts offering a running commentary on the social experiment. 5-year-old kids are selected from all over the UK and invited to hang out at a play school which is rigged with cameras. The kids wear microphones and their every interaction is picked up on film. Neurologists, doctors and child developmental psychologists watch the footage back and comment on how the kids’ behaviour sits with their research. There are 4-year-old and 6-year-old versions, too, and all of them are riveting to watch – for reasons of both nostalgia and curiosity. There’s something very tender about watching the beginnings of friendships, the proclamations of love and the emotional vulnerability of very young people, and it’s more elucidating than you’d expect. Children are just small adults, after all, and you can see the foundations of adult behaviour in everything they do. So, what does this latest episode tell us about gender? Teachers split the 5-year-olds into groups of boys and girls, which naturally sets them all off squealing and hurling insults at each other. They set the kids identical tests designed to work out how gendered a group becomes in its own company, how empathetic children are, and how readily both genders will take risks. It’s expected that both groups will become more gendered on their own, that girls will be more empathetic, and that boys will be more willing to take a risk – and that’s exactly what happens. My favourite challenge is the empathy one: the teacher, Kate, makes lemonade with salt instead of sugar and asks the kids to taste-test it and tell her what they think. The boys practically spit it out immediately, screwing up their little faces and saying, "That’s disgusting!" The girls are far more diplomatic about it, with one of them saying, "I think this is incredible, but could I please have a glass of water?" The girls are miles ahead in terms of empathy, but how are they for honesty? Do these differences carry on in adult life as we know it?
The experts this episode are Professor Paul Howard-Jones and Dr. Elizabeth Kilbey. Dr. Kilbey is particularly entertaining, especially as she watches a small boy called Jude do an alarmingly disparaging impression when he’s asked to act out how a girl speaks, walks and runs. "Jude!" she can be seen yelling at the monitor, getting on her feet as Jude does his best to show ‘how a girl runs’ by flailing his arms and legs in the air flamboyantly, rolling his eyes and making squeaking noises. It’s a beautiful, concerning moment – one that shows us how early we pick up on gender stereotypes. I asked Dr. Kilbey how early we start developing these ideas of how the genders are different – and whether we carry those attitudes through to adulthood. "From a neuroscience perspective, we know that brains are exposed to hormonal changes that influence or develop the structure of the brain as early as 3 or 4 months," she tells me. "We can detect differences in empathy between boys and girls, so we know developmentally, there’s something very different going on at a very early age. What really shocked me about watching Jude was how early this had translated into something we could observe. These children age 5 have been at school for about a year, which is a huge social environment they’ve been exposed to, but in their developmental journey in their life, this is such early days and yet they’re already reflecting back to us how they have understood that genders operate differently in their world." In this case, Jude and his mates have obviously noticed that female body language can be different from male body language, and they’ve chosen to exaggerate that to clarify their own ideas of gender. Where do they get these ideas from, though, and how long do they stay with us?
"As a psychologist, I’m going to say we have to think about the environment, we have to think about the messages children are exposed to," says Dr. Kilbey. "We talk about parents and the influence of the media, but what really blew my mind and made me actually screech ‘Jude!’ was something I’d never seen before: he converted and co-opted the other boys into his portrayal of girls. That’s what made me scream. We completely underestimate the influence of the peer group. Even at such a young age, they’ve had a year of this peer group at school by the time we get to them on the show. So yes it’s parents and yes it’s broader society but hang on a minute, it’s also their peers. That just brings a whole new fascinating layer into it." So is Jude destined to be a sexist adult because he’s behaving this way now? Will he always try to influence the guys around him to be sexist, too? "We are talking about 5-year-olds here so I think we have to remain in context," says Dr. Kilbey. "We have to resist the urge to extrapolate and say 'Therefore this means that…' Because there’s quite a lot of developing that goes on between being 5 and being an adult. What it tells us I think is what our mechanisms of influence are. I don’t know how we can predict how these children will behave as adults but what we can say is that they are shaping their own peer group and that peer group is shaping them, in a kind of cycle. If the peer group they’re in are confirming the gender stereotypes they understand, then yes they will carry that onto adult life – unless there is a different path taken. Then absolutely you can see that the train has left the station to where this developmental journey is going." This is fascinating, to me. We can tell the difference in empathy between girls and boys as early as 3 to 4 months, and we may have laid the foundations for our attitude towards gender by the time we are 5. And our peers influence us as much as parents, school and the media. Watching Jude do his girly impression and talking to Dr. Kilbey afterwards, I can’t help but think this is how locker-room banter among boys starts. It’s difficult to watch this show without extrapolating what these kids do to adult behaviour. Just like them, we’re heavily influenced by the people around us and how they see gender. Thankfully, our brains and social consciences have grown a little since we were 5. Well, most of ours have, anyway.
The Secret Life of Five Year Olds airs on Thursday 2nd February at 8pm on Channel 4.