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Mary is a Sydneysider, a mother, a feminist activist for women in tech, and an erstwhile computer scientist. She co-founded a women-in-tech non-profit, the Ada Initiative, where she presently works. Mary also writes for Geek Feminism, and, when there's no other suitable venue, for her own blog puzzling.org.

This author has written 95 posts for Hoyden About Town. Read more about Mary »

26 responses to “Life at 7: discussion thread”

  1. orlando

    Aren’t the psychologists doing a great job of phrasing everything so that the participants won’t feel criticised or judged? Everything is phrased in terms of “this characteristic is likely to make it easier for the child to negotiate this, but may result in them having difficulty in circumstances like that.”

    I do my best not to be judgey myself, but the bloke who left his pregnant, grieving, almost-blind wife to raise a five-year-old and a brand new one on her own, and then went off and had two more babies almost straight away brought me out in hives. Dude! Whatever you have going on with you, can you not put it on hold for just a couple of years, at least until your youngest doesn’t need someone to change her nappies??

  2. tigtog

    I haven’t seen the show, but in principle your summary does make me head to the mcjudgeypants section of my wardrobe. I guess he can only control his end of the fertily equation, and I certainly do know some women who, to (oftentimes) their chagrin, are superduperfertile (which may have been the case with subsequent partner), but [sheesh] still.

  3. orlando

    I wonder if everyone thought “Oh no, I’m parenting Declan, the volatile opinionated energy bundle!”

    Haha, yes, that’s exactly what I thought.

    I must admit that I love to watch the experiments. I would happily sit down and watch the lot, all the kids, end to end. It’s so fascinating seeing the different ways children navigate challenges. The one where they asked them about the emotional state of the little boy in the film was extraordinary.

  4. Chris

    I do my best not to be judgey myself, but the bloke who left his pregnant, grieving, almost-blind wife to raise a five-year-old and a brand new one on her own, and then went off and had two more babies almost straight away brought me out in hives. Dude! Whatever you have going on with you, can you not put it on hold for just a couple of years, at least until your youngest doesn’t need someone to change her nappies??

    There was a lot left unexplained in that situation. IIRC the father hasn’t seen either child in almost a year even though from the interview it sounded like he wanted to have a relationship with his children. So I’d guess there’s a lot going on in the background that the show has decided not to talk about because of time or privacy constraints.

  5. tigtog

    Related: just saw an ad for the latest edition of the similar BBC series – 56 Up aired on SBS Tuesday night this week, and is still available on SBS iView.

  6. Aphie

    Orlando @ 1: I don’t know about that; I found the focus on separation in Life at One to be rather off-putting; I would expect the majority of one year olds to become distressed when their mother leaves them in a strange place, and the way the head of the study phrased it, it really read to me as “now we can’t all be extroverts (unspoken, suggested by tone: BUT wouldn’t it be great if we were?! coz it’s so much better!)”

    As I am not parenting a Declan, but more a Benjamin, I feel a little resentful of the implied negativity towards less socially confident and detached kids.
    Am yet to start the life at seven series, have watched to there, so far.

    The marshmallow test was my favourite so far, I think, though the robot one was interesting too.

  7. Orlando

    @Aphie, I was responding to what I’d just seen in 7, I wonder if they might have got some feedback after the first one, along the lines of what you said, and tried to adjust? (Pure speculation.)

    The BBC version is Child of Our Time, isn’t it? They started in 2000, so their kids must be a bit ahead of ours, and about to turn 12. And they started one in Ireland in 2008. The comparisons will be interesting one day.

  8. Mary

    We had some interesting discussion when Life at 5 aired on the same issues coming up here:

    blue milk:

    But there is much to feel concerned about, even in this small segment you have highlighted here, and I found others when I was watching the series too, like the ways in which introverted babies versus extroverted babies were discussed in terms of their performance during some of those classic experiments about attachment and seperation.

    Me:

    But on that subject I was also rather surprised by the interpretation of the separation experiments. I was under the impression that they were usually interpreted the other way around; that a child should show distress at separation from their primary carer, not that a approx 12mo child should be able to cope with that. (Both “shoulds” have their problems!) But Ben’s separation anxiety, and the anxiety Jara’na develops later as a toddler, are both portrayed as extremely worrying.

    We view my own son as moderately extroverted, and his reaction would have been more anxious than any of those shown except Ben’s.

    They said something at some point about all personality types being valuable, and my husband (who is extremely introverted) said something like “just because a personality type exists, doesn’t make it valuable!” The show doesn’t really back up this claim with a discussion of the values of introversion, or for that matter of caution about carer separation or strangers! The only Life at 1 claim about introversion is that it exists, basically.

    It was, to me, treated in a more balanced way in Life at 7 than in Life at 1.

  9. Mary

    And Life at 7: Finding Your Tribe is now up for viewing: actually it has been for more than a week, but I just got around to it.

    As usual, I think, the series’s structure fails when dealing with disability. I thought this was evident with Daniel’s older brother Jamie (now deceased) and now Wyatt’s younger brother Juwan. (These are also the two families shown with the worst relationships between the separated parents, at least that the parents are willing to talk about on-screen, with both fathers not in contact with their son at the conclusion of the episode, and both also having two very young children with a new partner.) I thought Ben’s speech delay was handled moderately well, or at least not terribly? It’s a part of him, and so is his art work and his large family and so on. Similarly with Wyatt’s learning difficulties versus his empathy. But Jamie and Juwan’s disabilities are cause for sad music and “cruel twist of fate” language, and they’re also framed very much in terms of their impact on the abled (on that axis) sibling.

    And of course there’s loads to be unpacked in the gender roles discussion that there was barely time to touch on, it just got rounded off with a statement from the investigator that perhaps challenging gender roles isn’t needed, just valuing gender roles equally. Hrm. I’ll quote it so the exact words are here (beginning at 37:44):

    [Shine's mother Michelle is shown starting a lawn mover. Shine's father Alain is shown in a kitchen chopping vegetables.]

    Narrator, voiceover: Alain and Michelle don’t follow traditional gender roles, role modelling a different approach for Shine.

    Alain, voiceover: If something needs to be done, one of us does it. And we don’t go “Oh I’m not mowing the lawn because that’s a man’s job or…

    [Shine is shown on the floor watching Alain prepare food, spinning in circles on her back and waving.]

    Alain, continues: “… I’m not cleaning the kitchen, that’s a woman’s work! Get in there!”

    [Alain shown speaking to camera.]

    Alain: That’d get me dead pretty quickly.

    [Alain's food is shown being served and the family of two adults and five children gather to eat at the table.]

    Michelle, voiceover: I guess my role in the family would be ye olde stereotypical Dad. I mean, I go out to work. I just need the beard really.

    Marc de Rosnay, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, University of Sydney, voiceover: While there’s certainly a very strong argument to be made that gender stereotypes are limiting…

    [Cut to Marc de Rosnay speaking to camera, in a studio with children's artwork in the background.]

    Marc de Rosnay: I think as a society the more important thing is that children see that important role models are filled by men and women.

    Err…? No? Yes? It’s more complicated than that?

    And I thought the “boy” style play, where they begin imaginative play with the shared toy quickly, rather than engaging in extended negotiation as the girls did, was portrayed favorably where it should have been portrayed neutrally. There are obviously huge numbers of circumstances where one should negotiate over a shared resource/goal before commencing the project! The constraint of only having N minutes to play is very artificial, and it’s not clear that the children were told what the limit was (although they’re 7 and they’ve spent a lot of time in the life lab, so presumably they guessed to an extent).

    In addition this seems to be another episode where the somewhat artificial theme let them down. It’s supposed to be about finding peers, but they don’t have anything but extremely quick glimpses of the children with their day-to-day peers and teacher reports on their social lives. Which is obviously because they are unlikely to get permission for (or have time for) finding out anything about the children’s peers. Honestly, I wish they could drop the editorialising about childhood research almost completely, and let the stories be told.

  10. Chris

    The constraint of only having N minutes to play is very artificial, and it’s not clear that the children were told what the limit was

    Perhaps not being told how long they have in advance to play would not be normal (but then again I don’t think it would be an unusual experience for many children), but having a limited amount of time to play I think would a very common experience. They’d get that at school (set times for recess, lunch), even young children at childcare have schedules they work to for different activities. Or parents working in a trip to the playground or a friend’s house in between other events they have to go to.

    And I thought the “boy” style play, where they begin imaginative play with the shared toy quickly, rather than engaging in extended negotiation as the girls did, was portrayed favorably where it should have been portrayed neutrally.

    I did have a bit of a laugh at this part of the program because it so well describes how my daughter plays. There are *so* many rules when we play her games. I do find it interesting to break the rules and see how she handles it though :-) I hadn’t realised there was a gender aspect to it and kind of assumed it was just an age related thing. And I wonder where it comes from.

    There are obviously huge numbers of circumstances where one should negotiate over a shared resource/goal before commencing the project!

    In this example is it a different approach to group play? Where the girls do see it as a group project so you need to establish rules, the boys seeing it more as individually playing with the toy at the same time with some interaction at times, so take the negotiate-on-demand approach?

    To be honest I was surprised there was such a stark difference – presumably the show would not have showcased this though if it was just coincidence rather than something they observe in general?

  11. Chris

    I’ve kind of assumed the former: certainly, none of the experts commented on the negotiation style findings.

    I’ll be very disappointed if this is the case. I think the role of the producers here should be to highlight expert observations of the study result. And not presenting their own ad-hoc conclusions based on the video footage of the very small number of children which the TV program follows.

    On a different topic – watching 56up reminded me of the huge responsibility that the producers of these types of show have. By broadcasting quite a bit of information about these children to the general public they are unavoidably also changing their lives. Its not so much of a problem when they’re very young, but when their peers start seeing the shows and random strangers in the street start recognising them it will be.

  12. orlando

    I just watched the second Life at 7 episode, and I thought the gender stuff was the biggest load of shit I’ve had the misfortune to see in a long time. It reeked of confirmation bias. They set up the experiment with group play around the castle in such a way that whatever the results were they would have no choice but to attribute them to gender difference. You have two different groups of kids, you’re going to have two different play experiences, but if you’ve divided them into boys and girls already, then you’re hardly going to look at the differences and say “well, I guess we had two different combinations of personalities here, based on a random assignment of character traits and developmental levels”. No it’s that one group has Boys! and one has Girls! and if any of the Girls! act like Boys! we call them tomboys so we don’t have to admit our entire premise is bollocks.

  13. Chris

    You have two different groups of kids, you’re going to have two different play experiences, but if you’ve divided them into boys and girls already, then you’re hardly going to look at the differences and say “well, I guess we had two different combinations of personalities here, based on a random assignment of character traits and developmental levels”

    It wasn’t two groups though, it was four groups. Two groups of girls and two groups of boys. Now that’s such a small sample that you still really can’t make too much of it if that is the only evidence of the two separate groups of girls playing in a different way to the two separate groups of boys. Which is why I was wondering if the conclusion they made was just based on that small experiment, or if it was done to illustrate data coming out of the long term study of 10,000 children which this series broadly follows.

  14. orlando

    So where’s the control group of mixed genders, so we can see if most kids can actually adapt to either kind of play, but are following the lead of the strong personalities? And who says that only first-person in-character dialogue counts as ‘play’, but third-person ‘he needs to go in the dungeon’ is ‘setting up’? That looks like merely the interpretation of the adult observer. My little boy is an absolute fiend for rules in his imaginative game, though he does first-person as well; what does that make him?

    Did anyone notice how many parents said their little girl switches around in the kind of play she likes? But we didn’t hear a voice-over conclusion saying ‘so most seven-year-olds are pretty fluid in their gender-role play’. And how come no one asked about whether the boys always conform? Do they not want to admit that boys who like ‘girl’ play even exist? Are they worried about offending the parents by the implication that their manly manchild could be effeminate? The entire framing of the question was set up to reinforce assumptions that children can be classified behaviourally by their gender.

  15. Chris

    So where’s the control group of mixed genders, so we can see if most kids can actually adapt to either kind of play, but are following the lead of the strong personalities?

    I don’t think you can many any real general conclusions from any of the Life Lab experiments just on their own – whether it be gender, age, development milestones etc. They simply aren’t following enough children and as you point out the experiments aren’t that rigourous. However as I sort of mentioned before if the Life Lab experiments are simply being used as a tool to better illustrate research from the much larger longitudinal study that is being run at the same time, then I think that’s ok.

    And who says that only first-person in-character dialogue counts as ‘play’, but third-person ‘he needs to go in the dungeon’ is ‘setting up’?

    Yes, I’d agree that “setting up” is play too.

  16. Michelle

    I’ve been reading the discussion with interest. I will acknowledge I am reading from a more informed position – I happen to have access to a lot more information regarding the series than the average viewer so I am particularly interested in how the show comes across without that inside knowledge. Hello everyone, I am Michelle, mother of future biomedical scientist Shine. :-)

    I didn’t just happen across this discussion, I’ve been reading Hoyden’s for years, btw. I just thought I’d add that so it didn’t seem weird me posting.

    Here’s some thoughts I’ve had while reading through the discussion.

    In relation to the comments about the Life Series’ narration, I agree that it is sometimes problematic. I like though that in general value judgements are usually left to the viewer to make, however sometimes I feel the narration panders to the lowest common denominator and makes me a little eye-rolley. I sometimes feel the narration doesn’t do justice to the story being told – I think the stories themselves are often enough to present the data from the LSAC (Longitudinal Study of Australian Children) without the need for simplistic and often slightly skewed interpretation.

    Mary, you are quite right when you point out Shine and Loulou are the children representing the youngest cohorts in the study. Shine is around 12 months younger than the majority of the children and I think she’s about 18 months younger than the oldest child in the series. She was chosen to be part of the documentary before her birth (naturally, her birth scene was well-used in the earlier episodes!).

    In relation to the comments about disability, I think the negativity around it was in reference to the impact it was currently having on Tamara, mum of Wyatt and Juwan. That is her lived experience of parenting a child with disabilities. I have very much felt that the producers allow the families involved to tell their stories – the questions are usually linked to the study but the answers have always reflected our own experiences and I’ve never felt misrepresented. I of course can’t speak for the other families involved but if I at any point felt the documentary lacked integrity we would no longer contribute. So I feel that it would have been an accurate portrayal of disability for the families involved although I hate to speak for them.

    Of course there’s a lot more to discuss in relation to the themes being touched on – disability and gender roles but the nature of the series means that it’s not really the right forum to have the full discussion – there’s time limitations, other stuff going on in our lives that related to the themes in being explored etc. Two episodes every two years doesn’t really provide the context for a full critical analysis of any social issue but rather it allows the opportunity to bring those issues to the surface so that others may begin to have those discussions.

    For our part in it, I am just really glad questions around gender roles were raised on mainstream telly, even if it was just a snippet of the full discussion. It makes me happy to think maybe those more in-depth discussions were happening in people’s homes all around Australia. The Life Series is, after all, just a snapshot of the lives of some Aussie kids, it’s not an in-depth exploration of complex issues and I don’t think it pretends to be.

    Just for the record, we haven’t at all deliberately shielded our older children from the documentary and they are able to choose what level of contribution they’ll have.

    I’m actually a bit confused by your comment Mary – “it would be interesting to hear about how they talk and think about gender with regard to her son(s).”
    Our ideology doesn’t change in response to our male children…why would it?! That seems to me to be missing the whole point of focussing on children as people beyond the contents of their underpants.Of course our criticisms of shuffling children into preconceived rigid gender roles extend to our sons also (we have two sons, aged 14 and 10). Our sons are very different in personality, absolutely chalk and cheese. Like our daughters, they have been given a wide range of choices and been supported to be who they are as people rather than gender.

    I think sometimes the criticisms of the show can be valid, and I would highly encourage people to continue to view everything they see on telly though a critical lens. But sometimes it can be challenging to read when you know the criticism is unwarranted, particularly in relation to your own family. Criticism for the sake of it is tedious, valid criticism to raise awareness is awesome. For the record, our story has always been told with honesty, integrity and truth. We’ve not been misconstrued, we’ve felt able to let our own story do the talking (and this is particularly the case for Life at 7) and the exploration around gender made it to the series after I made some comments while the cameras weren’t rolling during the studio filming for Life at 7. It hadn’t been planned, but a comment was made and the director decided to follow that thread. This is what I love so much about the series – the stories are real. It’s not just telly, it’s our actual lives, our families, our experiences and we are supported to do the story-telling.

    I am proud of our contribution to the show – I am proud I have brought images of breastfeeding a toddler to a mainstream television show. I am proud to have contributed to discussions around gender assumptions. I greatly value the opportunity to be part of consciousness-raising around the things that really matter to me. I have been able to talk about the importance of attached daddies who equally share the parenting load. I’ve been able to showcase how a happy, healthy, attached family looks. I’ve been able to show the progression from desperate poverty to comfortable living through education. This hasn’t been the producer’s story, it’s ours.

  17. orlando

    Thank you, Michelle, for giving us an insider’s perspective, and sharing even more than you already have. I was going to reply to Mary’s comment something like “Isn’t it amazing watching Michelle and Alain work so hard to make their life what they want it to be, they’re so inspiring”, but now I’m afraid that will look a bit naff.

    While I agree with what you’re saying about it only being possible, within the limits of the format, to initiate discussions, we can’t get away from the fact that the way the topic is framed has a huge influence on the direction those discussions will take. Your comments about treating Shine as a person would have been a perfect lead-in for a segment framed as “let’s look at how much variation there is in the degree to which these parents have expectations about their kids’ gender presentation” or “let’s see how much variety there is in the conformity to or breaking away from gender norms among our subjects.” Even better: “let’s see how much those two things align.” Instead we got “let’s see how boys and girls are different.”

    They could, at the very least, have made mention of the fact Mary points out, that identical behaviour commonly gets interpreted differently in boys and girls. Instead they did it themselves: they used the spoiled painting experiment to present the boys as pragmatic problem-solvers, while the girls were “unable to move on”, but in the previous episode we had seen Haleema figure out that she could flip over the page and start fresh, which she did. Did she get problem-solver points? Indeed she did not; they styled her as an uptight perfectionist. My point is that a person would have to be pretty well informed already about the way socialisation for gender works in our world before they are likely to take away anything from this episode besides an (utterly unwarranted, as far as I can tell) “gosh, aren’t boys and girls different?”

  18. Mary

    Popping in to say thanks for contributing to the discussion Michelle. I am on holidays this week, I’ll reply to the query directed to me next week when I have access to a real keyboard.

  19. Mary

    Back, finally.

    Generally: Michelle, thanks for telling your story. It’s great to hear that the producers are using your story and Shine’s story as you and your family wish, and I’m sorry we strayed a bit far into attributing motives to the producers.

    I’m actually a bit confused by your comment Mary – “it would be interesting to hear about how they talk and think about gender with regard to her son(s).”

    Sorry: that was very unclear. It’s not at all that I thought you were expressing a different ideology to your sons, or that you didn’t talk to them about gender role issues. It’s more personal to me than that: I have one child, a son. So I am simply always eager for examples of how people have that discussion with male children! Even when the ideology is the same, the child is likely going to be privileged on the gender axis, so the conversation is in some ways different. (Well, non-existent in my case, as my son is not yet 3 and not verbally advanced. He does not yet even read other people’s gender cues reliably although I expect that will come soon enough.)

    So I selfishly wish that was filmed and shown just for having another story that relates closely to my own life! Which is not to say that you should have insisted that it be filmed and screened somehow, or anything about the conversations that do or don’t take place in your household that aren’t shown, but merely that for me personally as a viewer I would have found that interesting and kind of cool. (Or if one of the families whose sons are being featured had been having similar conversations, but as orlando picked up, the boy’s gendered behaviour is not remarked on at all.)

    Looking forward to Life at 9!

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