“IF you’re not fair God will get cross and Theresa May will get cross.”
That’s five-year-old Nathaniel when asked about the difference between right and wrong – and it’s just one of a number of laugh-out-loud moments in the latest series of The Secret Life of Five Year Olds.
Enchanting and thought-provoking, the endless dramas-in-miniature are one reason the programme, which uses hidden cameras to record the antics of the littlest members of our society, has proved such a hit, regularly pulling in more than two million viewers.
It returns this week for another two-part special, and this time it’s focusing on the topic of morality: at five, children are at a crucial stage of their development when it comes to understanding right and wrong, and the show’s resident psychologists are interested to see what influences them.
“These children are entering a key stage of their moral development,” says Dr Elizabeth Kilbey. “But what motivates this and how do social and cultural elements influence a child’s moral code?”
And how better to find out than through the assorted tasks and games that regular viewers will know are designed to be as revealing as they are funny.
As Dr Kilbey puts it: “Watching children play tells us a huge amount about how they make sense of the world.”
This time round the games are testing teamwork, the temptation to cheat and empathy.
Among them is the “double six” game, in which the children are teamed into pairs and given a pair of dice.
Whenever they throw a double six, they get a jellybean to throw in a jar, with the ones who have amassed the most winning a prize.
Simple stuff, but with low odds of success – and the teachers deliberately leaving them to it – it’s set up to explore our human tendency to cheat.
Will the children stick to the rules? Of course not: within less than a minute red-headed Jasmin has started to cheat so robustly – turning the dice over manually – that she and partner Ella end up with 70 jellybeans compared to the other’s single digits. “We got sixes all the time,” she claims at first.
Yet after looking at her classmates she is also the first to plead guilty in the end – a move which then prompts discussion about the best way to proceed.
It turns out to be sharing her illicit jellybeans with her fellow players.
“What’s fascinating here is that all are guilty of foul play although it’s Ella and Jasmine who are most culpable,” says Professor Howard-Jones.
“Consensus and discussion are really critical for us as adults when setting our moral compass, but we can see at five years there is a valuing of that common agreement.”
The kids play outside before heading back for more quizzes and games, all watched by the show’s child psychologistsLuke H, meanwhile, shows a touching empathy that leaves the psychologists amazed during a quiz where one side’s questions are intentionally tougher.
He offers to move to the losing team – a decision that pretty much guarantees he will lose out on the tantalising pot of marshmallows that awaits the winning team.
“When they were losing they didn’t complain,” he says.
As any parent knows, however, it doesn’t take much for even the most fair-minded child to indulge in brinkmanship.
After a game following which the winning team get first dibs on materials they can use to build their own den – leaving the losing team with very little – the mood quickly turns sour, with territorial crowing in one quarter and peevish complaining in the other.
It takes Newcastle-born Elsa to diffuse the mood: she marches over to the winning team and gets them to confront their meanness – a gesture which breaks down the barriers and gets the children to share.
It was another significant moment for Paul Howard-Jones. “What we’ve learned is that children of five years old are susceptible to prejudice but what’s really heartening is that they also have the skills required to challenge it,” he says.
Overall it seems we don’t need to worry too much about putting our future in the hands of this generation of littlies.
Meet the kids
Jasmin: “When you have power it means you’re strong and you have loads of energy and stuff like that.”
A “fiery bubbly whirlwind”, Jasmin knows right from wrong but tries to push boundaries, according to her Liverpool-based dad Phil and mum Claire.
“But if you tell her off for something she does take it well,” adds Claire.
“She’s very strong with having two older brothers, that’s why I think she’s had to be louder. She won’t let the boys tell her what to do.”
While she proclaims to “like cheating” Jasmin also shows her soft side when she gives best friend Iris the pick of her sweets.
Luke H: “I’m President Trump. I can do what I like! Banks are not going to be open any more!”
Luke H is a lover of rules, according to parents Philip and Yelena.
“He does have an innate sense of right and wrong and he rarely steps beyond the boundaries or tests the limits.”
Even so they were taken aback by their son’s selfless gesture in the quiz.
“He did something I can’t imagine myself doing,” says Philip.
Not in the least because, with a dairy allergy that means he can’t eat chocolate, marshmallow is “heaven” to him, adds Yelena.
“It’s the one thing he’s allowed to eat because of his allergies. So we know how much it cost him to do that. I was shocked.”
Iris: “The naughtiest thing I have ever done is stolen a rubber at school.”
Natural-born leader Iris lives in Greater Manchester with her mum Machema, a nurse, who says her “bubbly, compassionate” daughter already has such an innate moral code that she has joined her school’s anti-bullying council.
“I don’t like seeing people being sad,” she says. “It’s important to me as I want to be kind to others” – although this laudable sentiment doesn’t stop her from hogging the toy cars when she is put in charge of allocating turns.
Ella: “If I was in charge I would just be relaxing and make my servants do everything for me.”
Ella is a rule-lover, according to mum Carmen and dad Carr, who have settled in the UK from their native Hong Kong.
“There are times when she knows she’s misbehaved and she says ‘ok, I will go the naughty corner myself,’” says Carmen. She looks stricken with guilt after being persuaded to cheat at the dice game by Jasmin. “Cheating is wrong,” she pleads.
Sienna: “I don’t think shouting at people is a very good thing to do.”
When the children are given dressing-up props Sienna quickly dons the role of Queen, hollering instructions at her minions.
“Everybody listen to ME,” she bellows. It’s familiar territory at home in Lancashire, where dad Oliver and mum Nikki say Sienna is the boss of the house.
“She does get really into role play – she likes to think she’s the mum of the house,” says Nikki. “In the future I imagine she will take on the role of an authority figure.”
Elsa: “Guilty means when you feel a bit sick as you know you have done something you are going to get told off for.”
“Confident, bubbly-but-willful” Elsa also likes to be a leader, according to mum Jenny, who watched with interest as her daughter was bossed about by Queen-for-a-day Sienna.
Jenny was impressed when Elsa tackled a rival team for unfairness. “It was quite a brave thing to do,” she says. “If she had been on the winning team I don’t think she naturally would have done it, but I still thought it was brave.”
Nathaniel: “When I am older I would like to be a policeman as robbers are naughty all the time.”
Nathaniel lives in London with dad Howard and mum Victoria, who say he is very perceptive to things being unfair.
This is underlined when asked what he would do if he ruled the world. “I would lead all the soldiers to a café when they’re hungry and order them some food,” he says. He also denies being naughty. “Never ever ever,” he says.
The Secret Life of 5-year-olds goes out on Channel 4 on Tuesday May 8th at 8pm