Life at 9: discussion thread

Here we are at Life at Nine already. How quickly they grow up!

The ABC’s documentary series tracking the growth and development of a sample cross-section of Australian children only appears every two years. The two episodes of this edition are designated ‘Independence’ and ‘Creativity’. Both episodes are still available to watch online and on ABC iView.

Watching the different responses of a range of children to classic cognitive development experiments is always fascinating, but it’s also great to have a couple of broader issues about raising children highlighted. I do find the questions asked are often exactly the ones I puzzle over. How much independence is the right amount? And how much responsibility? And how much structure? I noticed that the childhood experts seemed almost shocked to find that none of the nine year olds were walking to school unaccompanied, and concerned that they were all being supervised too closely to be healthy. And yet this is exactly the age of the little girl in the USA whose mother was actually jailed for letting her play in a nearby park on her own. So, some cultural variables worth discussing, there.

The documentaries started showing eleven children, but one (LouLou) had stopped participating by Life at 7, and this time two more (Haleema and Jara’na) were not present. No mention was made of whether it was a permanent decision by the families to leave the project. Unfortunately, this means that there are now only three girls shown. Also, as Jara’na was the only child identifying as Aboriginal and I think Haleema may have been the only Muslim, we are seeing less diversity among the participants.

One thing that struck me was how very tiny, and rather endearing, acts of rebellion are at this age. Declan taking himself off to drumming lessons, for example. I adored the moment when free-thinker Shine put a yellow dot in the bottom corner of her painting, despite being told to only use black and brown. The other children were scandalised! From little things big things grow.

So who has seen it, and what did you think? How does what was discussed intersect with your own parenting.

The general discussion thread on Life at 1, 3 and 5 is HERE.

The Life at 7 discussion thread, HERE, is especially interesting because of the contribution from one of the parents participating in the study, Michelle, who generously shared some fascinating insights into the process.

The British equivalent began in 2000, and is called Child of Our Time. There are some clips and snippets of information HERE.

8 children around a long table. Text: Life at 9


Categories: education, parenting, relationships, Science, work and family

Tags: , ,

7 replies

  1. Great post. I love the series. I have an 8 year old so has always been on the cusp of things described in the programs. This page on the ABC site explains why Jara’na didn’t participate this time (and the filmmaker was devastated he and Haleema didn’t want to be involved this time):

  2. Thanks for the link, Senga. I had a look around the ABC website, but didn’t spot that piece.

  3. Some thoughts on the Independence episode:
    1. They mentioned the role that the environment plays in physical independence, and that struck me. My neighbourhood (inner suburbs) has heavy car traffic but has a lot of pedestrian affordances: zebra crossings and traffic lights. My children are younger than the Life kids (my eldest is 4 now) but I can see that I would feel a lot safer about letting him walk alone on the streets in a few years than I would if he had to cross unmarked suburban streets the way it looks like many of the Life kids would have to. We’re also in a village-style suburb with lots of small shops so that the nearest ice-cream shop wouldn’t be a long walk.
    2. I felt a little sad thinking that it is likely that this is the last time the girls will allow themselves to be televised wearing swimmers or sporty clothing.
    3. I feel like the framing of Anastasia has changed, from “willful princess” to independent and centered in a good way. (The framing of her personality by the production team that is, as distinct from her personality, which has presumably been more constant.)
    4. The “none of the kids walk to school” thing seems a little unfair to Ben, who appears to live on a rural property (some of the time?). I suspect his walk to school would be pretty substantial! Interesting that letting them cycle to school wasn’t discussed. But Ben might need motorised transport for the distance alone. Maybe in Life at 17 we’ll see him motorcycle to school! Ben’s independence seems pretty major, not surprising with 4 same-age siblings (plus one older) and one parent at a time.
    5. I was glad they actively mentioned the film crew’s presence once or twice, I always find documentaries and reality TV a bit disingenuous when they don’t acknowledge the massive disruption involved in doing an activity followed by a crew! Interesting use of the cameras fixed to the kids and (my husband says) even drones for the bushwalk part of the episode to minimise that disruption too.
    In terms of my own parenting, I feel a bit like Michelle, although our childhoods weren’t at all similar in most ways: I feel I was given too much freedom in some respects as a child of about the age of these children, so recreating that for my children isn’t a huge priority for me and I’d like to dial some of my childhood experiences back for my children.
    The episode seems to be conflating two slightly different things, too: independence, and risk. You can do things by yourself that aren’t terribly risky (like building a tower of wooden blocks) and take risks that aren’t very independent. On the independence side, I don’t hugely prioritise being alone or being able to do tasks unassisted for my older child yet. (But then, again, he’s 4, not 9.) But risk, especially physical risk, is important to us: we encourage climbing, bike riding, moving fast, and similar things.
    But then, they aren’t totally orthogonal either. My kid had skiing lessons last week, and it turned out we actually weren’t good enough to keep up with him (kids just shoot straight down the slope if you let them), which meant that he had a certain amount of independence as a result and needed to stop and wait for us at the bottom and just trust that we would eventually show up. (In fact, he worried for us, that we’d hurt ourselves due to our inferior skills.)
    There were a few times when I thought my older kid would behave differently from most of the Life kids. He would love to build a tower collaboratively with me… as long as he got to be the boss! I can’t imagine him letting me plan out an activity like that.

  4. The episode seems to be conflating two slightly different things, too: independence, and risk.

    This is a really good point, and we might break it down further by adding responsibility as a separate idea. The business of having tasks that you are in charge of is an important part of growing up, that different families initiate at very different rates. It was one of the things we saw in this episode, but bundled in with other kinds of doing things on their own.

  5. Creativity episode:
    First, a personal note: Declan is still the child who is most similar to my elder child. I am tempted to revisit the series in a couple of years when my baby is a bit older for her comparison point! But Declan’s similarity to my son is at times eery: the confession with regards to the drumming lessons is very like my child. (Again, there’s a big age difference though, my son is 4.)
    My husband, whose family say that his personality as a child was extremely similar to my son’s now, rolled his eyes at the bit in the bush where Declan surprised everyone by being able ­in to amuse himself for half an hour without any screens or playmates. “What a surprise, a kid who spends a lot of time on computer games turns out to be an introvert!” was his reading of that.
    They clearly liked the line about “the breezes of puberty” enough to run it in both episodes, but I found it hugely distracting: I assume it was intended as a more abstract metaphor but to me it seemed like a reference to smelling the children’s (forthcoming?) body odor! Too intimate.
    Some broader things:
    1. They wavered a bit on whether creativity mostly emerges from children when left alone or whether it’s a learned skill that’s best taught in some kind of structure (which may need to be separated from, eg, high stakes testing), or both, or when each applies. I was reminded of the classical homeschoolers I know, who tend to be very interested in their children learning accepted forms first (eg, rhetorical and poetic techniques) and then asking them to be creative in their use of those forms, rather than especially encouraging creativity without structure.
    2. They talked about free play a bit, but one thing was left unsaid, which was access to other children to play with. Very few children were shown playing alone. This is something I am pretty aware of, with a four year age difference between my children and therefore no nearly same-age sibling playmates like Josh and Sofia (in particular) had in the Creativity episode with their own siblings. This may tie back to the Independence episode too: with children largely only venturing outside their property boundary with an adult, and many children having fewer siblings, adults need to facilitate their social contact with other children more.
    3. I felt that the framing of the tower experiment was a bit unfair to the adults. The adults spent a lot of time in careful negotiation of roles, and in planning? I can’t imagine why adults would possibly behave in a way that builds long term working relationships at the expense of immediate creativity! Silly adults! Anyone would think they needed to work with the same colleagues for years at a time, or some such thing!
    4. Some of the experiments are amusing because they’ve crossed into popular culture. My mother has administered the marshmallow test to my son. I’ve done the spaghetti tower task at several “networking” events for adults. I’m probably a bit unusual, but nevertheless, if I was in that situation, my response would be “tainted” by already knowing a little bit about what is “supposed” to happen.
    5. I’m glad her participation in the show has had concrete rewards for Tamara. It obviously would be much much better to live in a world where later education was accessible to any teen mother looking for it, etc, but narrowly, it would seem increasingly exploitative to film and watch her family struggle while some of the others don’t. I hope her benefactor hasn’t attached strings to her education.

  6. After discovering that my son’s public school next year — or at least the after school care unit — has a policy that no child can be released to walk home from school unaccompanied before age 10, I am now wondering about institutional aspects of the “NONE OF OUR CHILDREN WALK TO SCHOOL” aspect of the Independence episode. How many of the schools would even allow this as a matter of policy? (I guess, strictly, schools have more control over how students leave than how they arrive, but even so.)

  7. Yes, I thought the producers were really out of touch with how schools and other institutions treat children – there are lots of things children no longer do on their own because adults prevent them from doing it, and tell them it’s not safe.

%d bloggers like this: