The Enduring Appeal of the Seven Up! Documentaries

Michael Apted, the enormously talented British director, died last week. Apted had an eclectic career which included a James Bond film, Coal Miner’s Daughter (about the life of Loretta Lynn) and the astounding documentary series, Seven Up!, which is legendary in the UK and beyond.

In his honor, this week I am re-posting a blog I wrote a decade ago about why I thought every parent should show the Seven Up! series to their kids. When I wrote that post, my kids were still young. But my feelings haven’t changed a bit. Here it is:

As a parent, it’s sometimes difficult to know which of life’s hard knocks are appropriate for children to know about and at what age.

I myself came under considerable criticism a few years back when I spoke to my then five year-old daughter about the Holocaust. And I’ve raised more than a few eyebrows (including two of my own) for letting my son read the entire Game of Thrones series when he was ten. (If you want a quick primer on sex, violence and everything short of videotape, do give those books a go…)

But one decision I have not regretted was encouraging our children – now 8 and 11 respectively – to watch the Seven Up! Series with me and my husband.

If you’ve never seen Seven Up!, drop whatever you’re doing and go do so. You won’t be disappointed. The series began as a documentary about childhood in the class-torn Britain of the 1960s, pivoting off of the famous Jesuit aphorism: “Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man.” The Director, Michael Apted (an assistant on the first film), interviewed 14 seven year-olds from strikingly different backgrounds in England and traced their evolution. His hypothesis was that knowing these kids at the age of seven would give us insight into the “man” (woman/person) in adulthood. He then went on to make a new film every seven years, the most recent installment being 63 up!

As you make your way through these films, you are privy to the remarkable dreams of childhood, the dashed hopes of adulthood, along with the inevitable personal crises, marital difficulties, and economic challenges that invariably accompany the process of growing up.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Sure, there are some pretty depressing stories in here – including about one bright-eyed youngster who proudly announces that he’d like to grow up to become an astronaut, but ends up homeless and mentally unstable. But there are also real rays of hope: kids who look like they’ll fall into drugs and crime but don’t…tough women who really enjoy their lives despite not having a lot of money…and poor little rich girls who look like they’re destined to remain lonely and miserable, but somehow manage to pull it together and lead a happy family life.

In part, my husband and I wanted our kids to see these films because they shine a spot light on some of the gritty truths of adulthood. Equally, however, these movies also teach kids that everything isn’t pre-determined at birth, that happiness isn’t just about having money, and perhaps most importantly of all, that life can be full of surprises. Some of those will be awful and unfortunate, but some will be exhilarating and inspiring.

Sure, I’d love to shield my kids from evil and sorrow in the world. But they will confront them anyway. And I want them to be ready.

How about you? What books/plays/music/films have you shown your kids that offered a glimpse into the realities of being a grown up?


Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash

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