Life at 1, 3, 5: general discussion

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

Background: this post is about the Life series that just finished airing on the ABC and which is affiliated with Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. Life at 1, Life at 3 and Life at 5 are available on ABC iView for a little while longer for those with Australian IPs and to whom it is accessible.

Now that I’ve done the specific posts, does anyone have thoughts about the Life series in general? Here’s a few thoughts on individual scenes:

  • In Life at 1 I love the super-serious newborn shot of Shine looking out at the world grouchily.
  • Jara’na was awesome in Life at 3, it was a real shame there was so much focus on his separation anxiety rather than his inventive play and sense of the dramatic.
  • My favourite Life at 5 scenes were both from the Marshmallow Test. One was Anastasia looking directly into the camera and popping the single marshmallow straight in her mouth for immediate gratification, and the other was Shine delicately stepping around the room, not looking at the marshmallow. (Actually, Wyatt was pretty cute too, testing himself by putting his mouth around it but not lifting it from the plate!)

On the series as a whole:

  • I wish we could see more of the eleven children meeting each other, which they have clearly done several times now, but it’s only been shown for the purposes of very brief cut shots of birthday parties and racing through parks. As the series goes on age-peer relationships will grow in importance, it would make sense, although it wouldn’t be totally representative of their social interactions, to begin to show them interacting with each other.
  • Judging from the birthdates of the children on the website, they’re the six year old cohort this year. It sounded as if there are definitely plans for Life at 7 to film next year and presumably air in 2013, and the print version of the Sydney Morning Herald suggested that the film-makers would like to go through the teenage years, although they don’t have funding yet and perhaps would plan less frequent updates. (Perhaps only one or two during high school.) I think the series would be improved if they could go out to three or four episodes from Life at 7 onwards.

Speaking of more content, I haven’t gone through the website‘s content, anything good there?

And a conversation about introversion/extroversion from comments:

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.


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.

There’s also been talk on Twitter at #lifeat5.

Feel free to use comments here to address any aspect of the series.

See other Life posts at Hoyden: Life at 1: breastfeeding, Life at 3: obesity, Life at 1, 3, 5: disability

Life at 1, 3, 5: disability

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

Background: this post is about the Life series that just finished airing on the ABC and which is affiliated with Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. Life at 1, Life at 3 and Life at 5 are available on ABC iView for a little while longer for those with Australian IPs and to whom it is accessible.

It’s not uniformly positive, but I was a bit more impressed with the handling of disability on Life than I was of breastfeeding or obesity. It’s quite possible I’m not as sensitised though.

As one would expect statistically, when you select eleven families and follow them for four years, there are several families with members who have illnesses or disability. Sofia’s father Anthony was treated for lymphoma just prior to Life at 1, so that’s only briefly treated and shown in a few still shots of baby Sofia visiting Anthony in hospital. Anthony is shown in hospital again briefly in Life at 5, receiving test results after a false recurrence scare. But the families who have members with disabilities during the series most prominently are Loulou’s and Daniel’s.

Daniel is the second child of Rodney and Kathryn, and in Life at 1 he is shown visiting his brother Jamie in hospital. Jamie was about three at the time and had a brain injury recently acquired in a near-drowning. He was almost always shown in Life at 1 and Life at 3 seated in a slightly reclined wheelchair, with little or no limb movement shown (in Life at 1 he is also shown in Kathryn’s arms in a couple of scenes, and once in bed with Daniel touching him). In Life at 3 he was described as also experiencing high levels of chronic pain, and at the end of the episode, there is a second segment returning to Daniel’s family for Jamie’s funeral (which was filmed and broadcast), as Jamie had died of pneumonia aged four and a half.

I was pleased that the circumstances of Jamie’s accident weren’t dwelt on very much (other than the fact that it occurred in a backyard pool, no details of the accident are given), it would have seemed trite to insert a long pool safety lesson. At least to me, the narration seemed generally to portray Jamie as a person in a family as did Jamie’s parents, although Rodney has a piece to camera in Life at 1 in which he discusses avoiding Jamie.

The main concern in Life at 1 with the treatment of Jamie was, to me, the extent of “what about Daniel?” about the portrayal. There’s quite a bit of “what about [child]?” in the discussion of the families generally. In this case it’s playing into a cultural narrative of concern about a disabled child focussing mainly on their abled sibling. The family themselves express some similar concerns, Rodney and Daniel’s grandmother more than Kathryn.

Kathryn is herself disabled, with a vision impairment. This is treated fairly neutrally: there are small sequences in Life at 1 showing her dressing Daniel by feel:

[Kathryn is pulling a red t-shirt over Daniel’s head.]

Narrator: Daniel will not only have to adapt to life with a disabled brother. His mother is completely blind in one eye.

Kathryn: Where’s your head?

Narrator: Over the past two months a cataract has formed on Kathryn’s good eye. Her sight is now extremely limited.

Kathryn: I can see but most of it is feel. Most of it’s my hands, knowing what to grab.

In Life at 5 she is shown teaching Daniel to help her with crossing roads and with bus travel. As is shown a little in the segment above, it’s again almost entirely considered in light of Daniel: is it a good challenge for his development, or too stressful?

Life at 3 Part One also describes disability. Both of Loulou’s parents have had depressive illness between Life at 1 and Life at 3, Louise’s is described as having grief following from miscarriages after Loulou’s birth and then post-natal depression and Shannon’s as an acute episode in a chronic condition related to a motorcycle injury.

There’s a moment of problematic framing in the discussion of Louise’s depression, in which a decision about medication is framed as the “brave” choice:

[A close-up of a cake being cut is shown.]

Narrator: By the time Loulou was one, Louise had been assessed for post-natal depression.

[Louise is shown in front of the cake, look around at adults attending Loulou’s birthday party.]

Louise: Everyone for cake? Yes?

Narrator: She was borderline, and the doctors recommended medication. But Louise bravely tried to soldier on and said no to the drugs.

Later, after Loulou begins childcare:

Narrator: The depth of her anxiety made it clear Louise needed help. She took her doctor’s advice and went on to anti-depressants. By the time Loulou turned two, Louise was back on track and emotionally stable.

Shannon’s acute depression episode occurred shortly after, and the narration leaves that alone more so that Shannon can himself consider the impact of his illness, although again at least the portion shown is largely “what about Loulou?”:

[Shannon, a pale-skinned man with close-cropped dark hair is shown speaking to camera inside a brick walled building with light coming in through the windows and surrounded by vehicle parts, where earlier he has been working on a motorbike.]

Shannon: That was a big step for me. “You have a mental illness, a depressive mental illness, that you will need to deal with and be conscious of and shield your daughter and your partner and and anyone else who could be collatoral damage from for the rest of your life.” That was tough. That was really tough.

What did you think? I think this could have been worse with either a more tragic air or the Fighting Fat episode’s constant refrain of “risk” but that this is still a particularly problematic area for the show to be keeping its tight focus on the particular impact on the abled child when talking about family members with disabilities.

See other Life posts at Hoyden: Life at 1: breastfeeding, Life at 3: obesity

Life at 3: obesity

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

Background: this post is about the Life series currently airing on the ABC and affiliated with Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, specifically the episode Life at 3, Part One: Fighting Fat. It is presently available in full on iView for those with Australian IPs and to whom it is accessible.

Ooo boy. It probably wasn’t ever going to be good, was it?

Let’s start with the basics:

Headless fatties. (Recalling that headlessness is a major obesity risk factor!). Headless fatties are shown at:

  • 3:06–3:44: Camera pans horizontally past a blurred very slightly rounded pale-skinned bare abdomen, a blurred shape that might be a pale upper arm outside a black sleeveless top, a second pale abdomen with arms crossed at the top of it, a fatter pale abdomen with (probably male?) breast tissue resting on it, and then cuts to two presumed women’s bodies shown neck to knee and wearing black bra and panties. Both women are pale skinned and one is fatter than the other. They spin around simultaneously from presenting their front to the camera to presenting their back. There is a close-up of them joining hands, some of their upper leg and buttock flesh is in the shot. The camera cuts to a male torso like the fatter one shown previously, and he turns around too, showing his torso from every angle.
  • 32:24–32:50: a brown-skinned fat male torso in black underpants spins to face the camera. It shifts its weight over each leg and spins again. It is joined by a pale slightly rounded woman’s torso in black bra and underpants, a pale fat man’s torso (probably the one from the previous sequence) and a second pale, fatter woman’s torso. They turn simultaneously to have their backs to the camera. The nearest torso, that of the pale man, shows some buttock cleavage.

Headless fatties. CHECK.

[Stephen Zubrick, Chair, Advisory Group, Longitudinal Study of Australian Children appears, as he does throughout the series, in a headshot, looking slightly to the left of camera. He is a late middle-age pale-skinned man with short dark hair.]

Stephen Zubrick: Our data is showing us that one in four toddlers is overweight or obese.

The Life series doesn’t push back much on the science at any point. For example, in Life at One, saliva cortisol samples were taken from the babies and it was assumed without proof that high cortisol equalled a stressed individual baby. Now, I have no medical/biological background at all, but I do have an experimental background, and I spent the whole time mentally screaming “is that a valid assumption? or does cortisol correlate with stress only across a population?” And in fact they had to back away from the automatic interpretation when Joshua, who they didn’t seem to want to interpret as stressed, had very high cortisol. Perhaps… he was just sick! Likewise, the limits of the psychological tests they run on the children in terms of cultural assumptions, edge cases, controls, error margins are never discussed. Obviously there’s a limit to the extent to which this can be done in a TV episode, but in general I wish the series was less “the experts have worked their magic! this child is fat/stressed/extroverted/determined! The end!”

And so, it’s no surprise to find out that this is how obesity is treated. How is obesity in toddlers measured? How strong is the link with childhood or adult obesity? How strong is the link between those and adult disease? And, most elementary to me, how many children are supposed to be overweight or obese? Measures of ‘healthy’ weight are often population based, where the top X% of weight, or BMI, or weight-for-height is defined as overweight, but yet, it is by definition expected that X% of people will be found in that top X%. I’d definitely like to be convinced that their measure of “overweight or obese” does not define overweight to be the top 25% of the population somehow.

There’s fairly standard fatphobic language about food: “good”, “bad”, and some tsking at the parents for using what the show’s writers seem to consider a euphemism, “treat food”. Then there’s this odd little sequence:

[Visuals of Ben and a sibling eating.]

Narrator: When we asked parents why they introduced their child to treat food the most common reason given is to reward them for good behaviour.

[Visuals of Daniel eating from a yoghurt container while his mother Kathryn watches.]

Kathryn: Finished?

Daniel: No!

[Visuals of Wyatt eating a sandwich at a table and looking at his father Glen.]

Narrator: But for our parents [note, here they seem to mean “the parents featured in the documentary”, not “the parents of the viewers”], unhealthy treat food was hardly ever offered up as a reward.

[Headshots of individual parents.]

Kylie [mother of Ben]: Aw crap I can’t even remember what we were given. [Rolls eyes.] Probably Vegemite sandwiches.

Michelle [mother of Jara’na]: Yeah we didn’t sort of get a lot of rewards when we were kids. There was too many of us.

Paul [father of Ben]: I don’t think there actually was a lot of time I did actually get a reward for doing anything good or anything like that. I kinda just had to do it.

Bernadette [mother of Sofia]: I think I got to stay up late and watch TV with my Dad as a reward! [laughs]

Steffi [mother of Joshua]: Maybe go to the park. Maybe go to the zoo. Or maybe my mother make me a new dress.

Kathryn [mother of Daniel]: My reward was actual praise. I didn’t get any food or anything like that. So once in a while you’d get, I’d get maybe a treat, but much of it was just mainly praise.

Narrator: Over one generation we are seeing a massive cultural change in the way we use and view food. Unfortunately, this shift has coincided with a dramatic reduction in how much physical activity our children do.

The statement about physical activity appears to be driven by the study’s data, but it seems that the “food was never used as a reward in 1975” hypothesis was one the writers came up with themselves based on interviewing parents of three year olds about how they believe they were rewarded as, say, eight year olds (since they mostly won’t remember being three). Aggravating in a series that is supposed to be informed by the study.

Another problem with this episode is a structural problem with the entire series. There are two episodes for each age group, each loosely focused around a specific issue. Life at 3’s two episodes are Fighting Fat and Bad Behaviour. Each of the children is allocated to an episode and their development and family situation is partly discussed for its own sake and partly discussed with relevance to the topic at hand.

For Fighting Fat this means that the primary interest in each of the toddlers it focuses on is “will it make them fat?”

So we have Joshua, who is among other things a toddler, of Chinese ethnicity, a younger brother, the child of an immigrant mother and the child of a father who downsized his career for his family and wants a low-pressure environment for his children. What’s the most interesting thing about Joshua at age three? Apparently that children of recent immigrants might get fat.

We have Ben, who is among other things a toddler, of unmentioned ethnicity (the cultural identity of most of the pale-skinned children is unremarked on), a survivor of a quintuplet pregnancy and a premature and very low weight birth, a brother to his quintuplet siblings and an older sibling. What’s the most interesting thing about Ben at age three? Apparently that children with low birth weights might get fat.

We have Shine, who is among other things a toddler, of unmentioned ethnicity (in Life at 5 her father meets his birth family, who are Irish), a child living in poverty, a youngest sibling in a larger family, and the biological child of an adoptee. What’s the most interesting thing about Shine at three? Apparently that children in poorer families might get fat.

It probably had to happen in some form. Could you get a childhood study funded right now that didn’t have a major obesity focus? But the television treatment is very uncritical, and moreover appropriates several potentially interesting standalone stories.

See other Life posts at Hoyden: Life at 1: breastfeeding, Life at 1, 3, 5: disability, Life at 1, 3, 5: general discussion.