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The Secret Life of Girls shows how scarily on to it the kids are

Broad horizons: equal to whatever life throws at them.
Do you remember what it was like to be a five- or six-year-old?” wonders narrator Hayley Holt on The Secret Life of Girls. Oh, my, yes. Terrifying. We had a teacher who made us line up so she could pull out our loose teeth. That counted as a good day.

Yet I always wanted to be a teacher. They were the women I knew who had a job. The only other choices were secretary or nurse. My granddaughter wants to be a zoo vet. Three women in our family are vets. She hopes the job will ensure 24/7 access to cheetahs.

We’ve come a long way. The five- and six-year-olds on The Secret Life of Girls seem scarily on to it. “Do you know what’s happening?” little Mei Mei says suspiciously to a new friend. “The people over there, and there, they’re watching us.” Indeed.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The two-part documentary is a version of the UK Channel Four series that observed the social dynamics and weapons-grade playground power plays of four-, five- and six-year-olds. So an Auckland kindergarten is rigged with hidden cameras (not hidden enough for Mei Mei) and the children are miked for sound.

The show also celebrates the anniversary of women’s suffrage. As India, five, declares precociously, “Kate Sheppard changed everything.”

India ensures the first episode is not short on drama. There’s a power struggle with Shiloh over the captaincy of the pirate ship. “I am your captain,” explains India, “and that means you do what I say.” Shiloh is soon walking the plank, to be eaten by sharks. It’s a jungle out there.

The girls are asked to dress up as a family member. Aurora chooses her dad: “My father likes to scream at the TV while watching the Warriors.” India dresses up like Edina from Absolutely Fabulous – her mother, apparently, who likes to go to the gym. “After that she drives home and drinks a cup of vodka and watches the telly.”

Early learning specialist Annette Henderson and neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis are there to devise slightly worrying social experiments. In an exercise in infant capitalism, each girl is given a jar of marbles. Whoever ends up with the most wins a lovely prize. No rules, no boundaries. Let the begging, theatrical sobbing and brazen theft begin.

Some girls can’t be bothered with this social Darwinist red-in-tooth-and-claw test and retire to play. India finagles a vast collection, then stashes her marbles under cushions – the kindy equivalent of a shell company in the Cayman Islands. After much crying, begging and stealing, she collects the prize: a hug from teacher Josie. Life lesson: lying, cheating and emotional blackmail rule. I guess these tots need to be ready for the neoliberal workplace.

There are moments that give you hope. Manaia gets Amairaa’s name wrong. “We all make mistakes. That’s all right,” says Amairaa kindly. In another “game” the girls, tricked out in suffragette-era bonnets and pinafores, seem genuinely distressed when half the group is capriciously denied the right to vote: “We feel sad for those people.”

It was all surprisingly entertaining and enlightening. Here is evidence that social and political progress widens the horizons of a country’s smallest citizens. “I’m the Prime Minister of Auckland!” announces India. “And I’m the Prime Minister of India!” says Amairaa.

Here is also a chance to observe that the dynamics of the adult workplace aren’t a million miles from the ruthless hierarchies, the miniature Machiavellian machinations, of playtime.

In the second episode, the boys, God help them, are let in. These girls look perfectly equal to whatever life throws at them. As India proclaims magnificently while commandeering the pretend cars, “Buckle yourselves in, girls!” It’s going to be a fascinating, if bumpy, ride.

The Secret Life of Girls, TVNZ OnDemand.

This article was first published in the September 29, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.