The secret life of TV's Alison Pike
After observing the tears and triumphs of The Secret Life of Brothers and Sisters earlier this year, Dr Alison Pike is back on the monitors for the fly-on-the-wall documentary series,The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6-Year-Olds.
In tonight’s episode (Tuesday, 15 November) on Channel 4, the University of Sussex developmental psychologist joins clinical psychologist Elizabeth Kilbey to comment on what happens when a new group of children joins old friends at a nursery.
Will there be battles and broken relationships? Or will new bonds be formed?
Without giving too much away, Alison can reveal that what may appear to be naughty behaviour by one child ends in a poignant revelation, while a competition that could have led to sibling furore has a heart-warming and surprising outcome.
The series, now in its second year, is as much about being entertained by the amusing interactions of young children as it is about giving parental guidance.
And for Alison, it is an enjoyable diversion from the challenges of her day job. For each of the two episodes she appears in of the current series she spent five hours a day for a week watching the children at play and in more structured activities to see what emerged.
“I was desperate to be on this,” she says. “Sometimes I say I am an academic without being an intellectual. I have no problem with entertaining TV. That’s what I like to watch. And if you can deliver two or three scientific messages in an hour of TV, I don’t think that’s dumbing down.”
Children’s behaviour, notably that of siblings, has fascinated Alison since she began her career in psychology. It has enabled her to reflect on her own upbringing in California in the 1970s.
“I have three older brothers and sisters – and they are all half siblings. I call it a family bush rather than a family tree. What I noticed was that my father treated me quite differently to his step children.
“It wasn’t just a case of being treated better. It was more intense. He didn’t try to control them as much as he tried to control me.
“It’s funny because I teach a lot about divorce and step families and I see how those dynamics work. What he was doing is what people now recommend for step-parents, which is do not try to take on the parental role. You will not have that legitimacy in the eyes of your step children. Be a kind guest. And that’s what he did.”
Although Alison began a degree in chemistry at the University of California (“I liked the periodic table, that sort of clarity about the world was very appealing”), when she took an introductory course in psychology she switched direction. “I like the scientific method, but I also really want to know what makes people tick and why we behave the way we do.”
After joining Sussex in 2001, she began a longitudinal study of families with two children, pursuing the puzzle of nature vs nurture in determining what we become.
“Anyone who has two children will know that as soon as the second one comes along you don’t have anywhere near as much power and influence as you thought you did.”
Among the surprising results was the evidence that siblings do have a strong influence on each other’s behaviour – independent of how their parents treat them.
“If the older sibling was kind and empathic, it influenced whether the next child would be also be pro-social,” she says. “The age gap and gender doesn’t matter as much as the temperament of the child.”
This is something that Alison, as a parent, is watchful of in her own family.
She and her partner, University of Brighton health psychologist Sian Williams, have two children by the same sperm donor. Their boys, aged five and eight, are therefore half brothers with different biological mothers.
“We each gave birth, and what we have noticed is that the boys feel free to behave much worse with their biological mother – their ‘tummy mummy’. Is it genetic, or is it because of maternity leave and six months of breastfeeding?”
She is also conscious of how knowing the theoretical arguments doesn't necessarily protect you from parenting pitfalls.
“Nothing has triggered more anger in me than parenting. But I knew that being reflective would help me so I started doing mindfulness. Now I pause and have a bit of emotional regulation. I am responding rather than just reacting. I used to shout a lot more.”
- The Secret Life of 4, 5, and 6 Year Olds is on Channel 4 at 9pm . Episodes are also available on Channel 4 OD