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“You can’t trust 6 kids in Podunk…” might be a phrase you are familiar with if you’ve attempted to make decisions about the youth market based on qualitative research…Or, “those kids just aren’t representative.” Enter quantitative research, developmental models and other reassuring statistics and structures that show us what’s really happening in the world. But the problem is that sometimes youth defy expectations, act counter to “type,” and occasionally, the outliers are more relevant than we might care to think. The question for youth researchers: when do we change our minds about youth, and how do we know whether what we’re seeing is really right, or just reaffirms what we already believe?

I found myself wondering about this recently in relationship to what I’ve come to believe (and often seen) about gender identity and children’s play. It might be easy to see that gendered play is part nature, part nurture (clearly, boys will try on the tutu in the daycare dress-up trunk if they’re given permission, but at the same time, just try to talk a boy out of their crush on cars). And there’s no denying that girls gravitate towards princesses and pink in large numbers, if not exclusively. Countless studies and developmental paradigms provide explanations ranging from exposure to gender expectations to a cultural/biological need for boys to separate from their mothers, while girls model their behavior. But, what happens when you’re confronted with anecdotal evidence that all seems to converge on the same themes?

My four-year old son recently caught a severe case of Spiderman fever. 

Despite never seeing any of the recent or old Spiderman films or cartoons, and rarely finding himself in the toy aisle of any store (mom and dad prefer shopping online to taking a preschooler into a manufactured Mecca), he seems to have a version of the Spiderman narrative inscribed in his mind…This “version” seems to be the result of a telephone game of sorts that has been playing out in his preschool. Clearly, someone has heard of this magical man with webs shooting out of his wrists, but my son has brought home numerous variations on this theme. “He is friends with all kinds of spiders…” “He wears a red costume because that’s his favorite color…” “He says nice things to his friends – but the bad guys don’t…” Some of these ideas seem more authentic than others…

But his conflicted parents encourages him to dress up as a firefighter instead of a crime fighter this past Halloween. And he agreed. When we showed up at his school parade, we cringed – our little one was a lone community helper amidst a sea of superheroes. And here’s the kicker – it wasn’t just the boys. There were a few preschool princesses, but supergirl and spidergirl lined up right behind our son. And just the other day, we warned my son that our friends with daughters ages 3 and 7 (without an older brother to pass down his toys) might not have cars or superhero toys, only to arrive and find that – right next to the Barbie castle – was a pile of well-loved Spiderman dolls, vehicles and even trading cards. Soon, imaginary webs were flying.   

So what does a student of youth do with this kind of info? Do we deny the evidence that shows that the stereotypes are often true (regardless of what causes them)? Do we encourage brands and organizations to go against type and to stop making all of those girls toys for girls, and boyish gear for guys? Probably not…But, back to our original question, when do we acknowledge that these outliers might be evidence of a real trend or truth, and when do we simply dismiss them as “not representative?”

Clearly, the answer is more art than science…But a few questions might help.

  • Are you making assumptions about what one “like” means about another category? Youth often relate to brands, products and experiences in complex ways. Youth – particularly kids – can sometimes love both an experience and its opposite…Being an athlete doesn’t mean one’s not an artist…Liking TV doesn’t mean that you shun books or reading. Being connected to Facebook doesn’t mean that friendships in the real world don’t matter.
  • Does your method fit the answer you want? Don’t get us wrong – we think quantitative information is incredibly valuable. YouthBeat is founded on the premise that your perceptions might lead you astray if, for example, you see a six year old on Facebook and assume every elementary schooler is a member of the site. Or when you need to know how many teens really own iPads. In other words, 6 kids in Podunk might help you really understand your audience in a nuanced way. But if you’re wondering about your brand’s ability to resonate among members of an unexpected group, qualitative might help you understand not just the “whats” but the “hows.” Clearly, Spiderman hasn’t replaced princesses as the most popular play-thing of the preschool girl set, but careful observation and age-appropriate conversations might show just how “super” they think those heroes are.
  • What perceptions are we bringing to the table – and where do we place them? Finally, any great researcher knows that your own knowledge and experience with a category or audience segment is both your advantage and your Achilles heel. Knowing a lot about kids, tweens and teens, we would contend, is an incredibly important foundation on which to build your youth-specific custom study. In our opinion, you can’t truly make sense of the data you get back without knowing how these groups of youth express themselves, develop and make meaning of the world. But as important as knowing a lot is knowing when to blink…Even the most strongly held conventional wisdom deserves a re-think when evidence to the contrary emerges. This applies not only to what youth do, but perhaps even to what might be “good for them.” 

Regardless of what you know about youth, don’t forget to pay attention to the occasional outlier – it might just inspire you to get a leg-up on the next big insight.