Parenting lessons I learnt tonight and wish I had learnt before my kid left home

Tonight I found out that I have really stuffed up.

My new tv remote is taking a while to figure out, and tonight’s fumbling left me stranded on commercial tv. As I started to break into a cold sweat of panic, fervently stabbing at all buttons to return me from tabloid hell, I heard the tinkling joy of small child voices, and allowed myself to be lulled into viewing something originally titled ‘The Secret Life of 4 Year Olds’.   

Featuring a somewhat overwhelming sample size of six kids, we were FINALLY able to gain new insights on how this age group operates in the world.  Like a primary coloured version of Big Brother, the kids are contained in a big house with various activities and some creepy voyeurs – really clever psychologists who watch, analyse (seemingly on the spot!), and share their findings with the clueless parents on the couch at home, who have always wondered why a kid would be tempted to eat a chocolate freckle when they are alone in a room and there is one right in front of them, right there.  (If that experiment sounds familiar it’s because it has been done so often since the famous original with marshmallows, that you don’t just think you’ve seen it before,  you have, many times…).  Still, I’m on the edge of my seat, and very grateful that repeated stabbing of the remote is yielding no movement from this Channel 10 wonder.  

I was  I saw a four year old girl, trussed up in bows and  a frock being asked if one of the boys was her boyfriend. No, she replied, just a friend. Pretty clear already who is the smart one in the room.   If I could find the pause button, I would have used it to buy reflection time – why is an adult, any adult, asking a four year girl whether she has a boyfriend?  Is that what’s important, is that her goal? Now I’m worried. I failed here. I failed to sexualize my young children, I failed to heterosexualise them, and I definitely failed to plant that early seed in my girls that they needed to worry first and foremost about having a boyfriend. Damn.   

OK, this is fascinating stuff. What else can I learn? What’s not to love so far – condescending, deceptive adults spying on kids dressed like dolls and asking them if they have boyfriends? They are here, after all, as props for adult entertainment – whether unwitting participants in highly entertaining pseudo-science shows like this – or just dressing them like dolls in real life.  (Can you imagine the chaos if we let kids decide what to wear?  Ha!  It would just be wrong to give them that freedom, apart from getting the edge on us, they’d look ridiculous and that would be embarrassing for us. Beside, how would we project our own image if we can’t use the kids? 

Hang on, the show is back after the ads.  I’m getting into it. They are in the garden now. Great, the girls are all in dresses and the boys are in shorts – that’s really practical because they are doing an OBSTACLE race. A girl in a long frock has just got caught up in a tunnel, trying to scramble through with reams of cotton twisted round her leg.  Sadly she has hurt her arm in the process, so leaves crying.  Fortunately, the boy in shorts has shot through no problem and goes on to win. Phew.

Peppered through the show are some gold observations that make the viewing experience really memorable. I can’t think of any right now, but I’m sure they’ll come.  Oh hang on!  That’s right, wonderful insights like ‘that’s creative problem solving’, and ‘I’m amazed’.  Actually, the adults seem regularly ‘amazed’ that four year olds have a brain!  (Do you think they signed up for the show about dogs finding nuts in a maze, not sure. We’ll move on.)

Oh the ads are on again. This one’s fun – it’s for a formula for children (not babies mind!) – because the kid won’t eat his meal (ie food) but the smiling kitchen mum doesn’t care because she can buy this formula to fill the nutritional gaps!  Hurrah!  Now the kid is imagining being anything he wants, because he’s so healthy on his formula, he’s imagining being a noisy boisterous dinosaur, a noisy boisterous astronaut, or a noisy boisterous fireman. (Yes, fire-man).  Hey, this formula is gooood – it maintains the status quo and we like that! 

Ahh commercial tv, thank god we have you to reinforce belittling, restrictive gender bias on our young peeps, and maintain the critical heterosexualisation of our next generation. Thank you for the great work you do.  (Sorry, digression. I’m just in awe.)

Oh hangon, ad time again. (Already?) Now we have a Ford SUV – oh hurrah, the kids have leapt out and are running in nature – the cheeky boy just jumped in a puddle! Scamp. And the daughter ran down the beach in her pretty dress. Ahh.

Ok, PS4 just confused the hell out of everyone by showing all kinds of people doing all kinds of things, including a girl in goal. Not sure what kind of blip just occurred, but I’m blocking it out. Ah – normality is restored with Brownes dairy, where apparently mums who work at Brownes are fussy, and all their daughters have long hair and wear pretty coloured dresses or tee-shirts.  And the boys are in strong blue and red. Phew!  That’s better.

Show’s back. Our expert helpfully explains that ‘role playing’ for the kids helps them develop skills for the real world and imagine what sort of jobs they might do. Clever.

Here they are in an office with a washing machine!  So life like.  The girl who hurt her arm is now in the office with a boy. She is the boss!  We know this because she is wearing spectacles and the voyeurs asked the boy if he thought she was being bossy!  Nice one, he might not have experienced it like that, so just as well they helped him.   Well, I guess she did tell him the paper doesn’t go in the washing machine, so I guess that does make her bitch boss lady from hell.  Wait – the confrontational little madam is on the phone now, telling someone ‘right now could you come to work?’.  I wonder who she is pretending to be?  Her parents have a lot to answer for, creating a confident, assertive, pushy, opinionated, bossy MONSTER like that.   

Next up, a big net full of shapes and balloons they aren’t allowed to touch. That’s clever – it’s like the freckle, only it’s something else!  The voyeurs observe how Bossy Boots likes to get others to do her dirty work (hang on though, one of the boys suggested it first? Never mind, we’ll ignore that). Then one of the boys pulls the string and down come the balloons.  Oh no!  There is a period of frozen angst where they must have been worried they’d be in deep doo-doo (one kid hides behind the basket), but no matter how fast their little hearts were pounding, our laughing voyeurs think that’s funny so all good!  

Now the relief as they realise they will not be beaten by ‘Ben’ (who keeps coming in and towers above them, inevitably talking down to them because he’s big and they’re…. not.  I assume the producers are letting us know that the old fashioned wisdom of  ‘getting down on the kids level to communicate’ is passe and unnecessary – good to know).  But who cares, the party is starting, they can all be rewarded for being rats and play with the once forbidden balloons!  Yay! 

We are now told, in way of summary, the ground-breaking discovery that, wait, ‘development is an ever-changing process’. ( I think that’s a tautology, but let’s move on, no-one’s noticed.)

The final take home is that every child will have their own journey (mind blown – that’s going to take some processing), and we must support them every step of the way.  They didn’t clarify if that means NOT setting them up to fail, spying on them and laughing at them, gender stereotyping, and towering over them to speak instead of getting down to their level.  But maybe we have to watch the rest of the series to find out?  (There’s that cleverness again!) Quick preview of next episode’s delights – what do you want to be when you grow up?  Where would adults be without the mundane? Love. First girl says a ballerina, but of course Bossy Boots has to create trouble and say archeologist or police. What a handful that girl is.  Sadly , I’ll be struggling with the remote for the rest of the series and its accompanying adverts, so I will be at a severe disadvantage going forward. Sorry in advance to any child I do not talk down to, grossly underestimate, or stereotype. And sorry to my own three teens for being such a bad mother.