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The big questions around Planet Child

The big questions around Planet Child

Twin doctors Chris and Xand van Tulleken tell us all about ITV’s new documentary series exploring childhood development

Shining a spotlight on the remarkable intuition and emotional awareness of children, Planet Child offers some deep insights into how kids learn about and experience the world

Planet Child, Wednesday 1 May, 9pm, ITV/HD (CH 103/113). Also available for 7 days in Catch Up > Channels > ITV Hub

Watching children still in their single-digit years boarding a bus in London on their own is a startling sight. But though they’re little, these kids are definitely not lost. In fact, they’re among the little stars in Planet Child, and this particular group has been tasked with finding their own way to the London Eye.


Identical twin doctors Chris and Xand van Tulleken, who also present Operation Ouch!, lead a series of experiments exploring the different ways kids experience childhood across Africa, America, the UK and Japan in this fascinating series. For example, while young children travelling independently might seem peculiar in the UK, in Japan it’s considered normal. “It’s a wildlife documentary about children, and we’re making the wildlife do stuff,” says Chris. 

We picked Chris and Xand’s brains to explore some of the big questions around the show.

Twin doctors Chris and Xand van Tulleken

What was your biggest finding from the show?

Xand: “We massively underestimate children; we think their inner worlds are not as rich as they are. We think their physical and mental abilities are lesser, as well as their capacity to cope, innovate, learn and grow. We underestimate them all the time and we do it to keep them safe.”  


Do you think people are born good or bad?

Chris: “With a tiny number of exceptions, children learn badness, and we can stop them from learning it. There are things in the environment you can correlate with kids who struggle later in life and become antisocial, sociopathic adults.”


Xand: “That’s an absolute adult criminal badness. Part of a child’s job is to explore the environment through little experiments. When a baby repeatedly throws a spoon onto the floor or when a child defies their parents, that’s not goodness or badness, that’s just a kid. You think the kid is the mouse in the maze, but actually the adults are the mice in the maze. The kids are doing the experiments on us.”


How can parents help children navigate risk management?

Xand: “The important thing is to prevent your kid from having a life-changing injury. A childhood with zero injuries would actually be a very dangerous childhood. There are certain things you see a lot in the hospital – car accidents, kids falling off tables, incidents involving knives or boiling water. Those can be fatal or profoundly life-altering, but playgrounds don’t tend to create life-altering injuries.”


“You run the risk of them possibly spraining an ankle, breaking an arm, getting a ding on the head. But if you don’t allow children to explore their boundaries, they can struggle with risk management later in life. A playground is a much safer environment than, say, a car when you’re 17, or a stag or hen do when you’re drunk in your mid-20s.”

Three children undertaking a task in Planet Child

Where do you stand on nature/nurture?

Chris: “This is the central experiment of our whole lives. A huge amount of the information about nature versus nurture comes from anecdotes about separated twins. We have the anecdote of these people meeting, having the same job, wearing the same shirt and their girlfriends having the same name. That’s created a cultural idea, but we actually have almost no data on this.”


“There is a prevailing belief that genes are very powerful, but that’s not very well borne out by the science. We have far more determination over who we are and who we become than we might imagine. As a scientist who does genetics, I think the evidence is on the side of the notion that we have much more free will than we think.”


Are boys and girls born equal? 

Chris: “The differences between boys are far bigger than the differences between boys and girls. Maybe we could get some data that possibly showed that boys prefer playing with mechanical toys, but there are loads of girls who love playing with them, just as there are loads of boys who love to play with dolls. So what difference would it make?”


What can you tell us about fears?

Xand: “It seems that we programme our children with our fears and what we’re disgusted by. We’re possibly predisposed to be afraid of snakes or spiders, but it seems like that’s massively outweighed if you grow up in a household full of spiders for example, where everyone’s happy about them.”


“We can cure most fears. I used to be very afraid of spiders and a psychologist friend of mine said I should get a pet spider. So I did – he, who was actually a she, was called Doug – and now I’m not afraid of them.”


What kind of an impact is technology having on children’s development?

Xand: “Technology is an incredibly seductive thing. My main concern with technology for my ten-year-old son is its capacity to make the user more sedentary and inactive physically. We definitely saw this in the programme. There’s a stat that shows how children in the UK spend more time indoors than prison inmates. That’s because of technology. I’m not sure that what’s on the screen matters as much as what they could be doing instead of having the screen.”


Chris: “If adults try and learn stuff with a laptop and a phone, they learn it less effectively than if they were to get out a pen and a piece of paper. But we live in a world in which kids are going to have to learn to understand screens. Their social lives are going to involve them and their friends will use them, so the currency of their lives is going to revolve around familiarity and interaction with technology. I have to manage that risk for my two-year-old daughter. It’s more about giving her the tools to effectively use the technology, rather than her being used by it.”


Planet Child

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