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Recently, we titled a presentation for Digital Kids 2013 “Everyone has an iPad” in which we promised to help sort the myths from the truths when it comes to the real habits and practices of today’s preschoolers through teens and their parents. Our inspiration? A bevy of calls over the past few years in which clients asked for accurate data on iPad (and iPhone, and eReader) data because at their organization everyone seemed to have an iPad. And, not surprisingly, the kids, tweens and teens of many of these marketers were often among that .5% who already had one of these cutting-edge devices to call their own.

At the heart of this question is one that goes deeper than data on digital devices…It involves the dilemma that youth researchers face regarding the “typical child” versus “my child.”

Of course, this challenge might face every researcher or planner who is forced to distinguish their own views or the perspectives of their crowd from those of the “consumer” for a given brand or category. But kids are a tricky category that makes this pitfall even more probable. We’ve all been children but we all have not been a middle-aged housewife, or a twenty-something guy who loves ESPN, for example. We pay a lot of attention to our children (other adults aren’t nearly as interesting). And, we tend to see youth segmented into stages that characterize universal, developmental truths related to kids that age. All of these characteristics of kids, tweens and teens put us at risk of seeing our children, children we know, or even our own childhood as exemplars and authorities on all children.

The solution might, on the surface, seem easy…Ignore your own kids. Forget your own childhood. Stay neutral, researcher!

Well, good luck. Researchers from all disciplines – Anthropology, Sociology, and even Psychology – have long cautioned that even the most noble efforts to adopt a reflexive stance, and to attend to the ways one’s own experience might shape the way we interpret or see data, true neutrality is never really possible.

AND…ignoring the children in our own lives brings its own risks with it. “My child isn’t typical” or “your child isn’t typical,” suggests that there IS a typical child. One that, perhaps, we fetishize – the “real” child, authentic “youth,” etc.  And it leads us to another question:  Who is that authentic kid or tween or teen whose image sits in our mind? Are they a he or a she? Are they Caucasian, Hispanic, African American? From the U.S.? What is their household income? Are they from the burbs or are they city kids? (How many times have we said, “New York City kids aren’t ‘typical’” when asked to conduct groups in the Big Apple?)

So how do we reconcile this dilemma in our thinking about youth? First, recognize that this challenge isn’t something that we ever truly master. It’s a question worth revisiting on every single project with every sample we consider. We think through this as we write about “trends,” for example: Is it okay to include something “big” in our kids’ schools or should we seek out the opinion of some other groups of kids who seem more “normal” than our own?   

But there are some questions to ask and guidelines to follow that can help you along the way…

  • Know the difference between inspiration and information…Our kids can be great sources of inspiration. Our newest YouthBeat offering, the Trendspotter, features trends that we came across in the media, on the road or from our YouthBeat qualitative panel, but certainly some were inspired by the play, the products, even the birthday parties in our kids’ lives. But when it comes to building a research plan or marketing plan on the number of teens who like brand on Facebook, make sure you’re looking at data specific to the group that your brand hopes to reach. It might be a sample that’s national, or, more likely, it’s a specific type of kid. Maybe your own children are good examples of that group, or maybe they’re not.
  • Recognize that there’s no “typical” kid…Forget about typical. This suggests that there’s a right childhood or a normal way to be. Our thinking about childhood can be overly framed by the idea of norms (standardized testing, Pediatrician’s milestones, developmental discourse), but keep in mind that children can be as individuated as adults. Children might be typical in some ways (they might eat the same foods as the “average” U.S. kid does), but they might be quite atypical in the way they consume media. Know what your respondents need to “represent” when you think about a representative youth sample.
  • Stop saying, “Kids today are different.” At the risk of sounding bossy, we suggest that you take this phrase out of your vocabulary! First, your OWN childhood isn’t likely to be exactly the way you remember it. Second, you were not likely a “typical” child just like your own children or even the children you meet in focus groups are not representative of all childhoods. You might not even know the ways in which your childhood was representative. Did you watch as much TV as other kids your age around the country? Was it more typical to ride your bike to school or to take the bus during your grade school years? The assumptions you’re making about your own childhood might be just as faulty as those we often make about the “normalness” of the kids in our own lives.
  • Remember that parenting and researching aren’t the same things…Speaking as someone who was a researcher before and after kids, I can attest—someone without kids can offer true and authentic insight into the lives of youth. Privileging parents can be a natural trap, but one that should be avoided. Living with children can sometimes cloud your vision, of course. But more importantly, equating parenting with researching children does a disservice to the discipline of youth and family research. Just like eating food doesn’t make someone a skilled food researcher, or shopping doesn’t make someone an expert on consumers or consumerism, we suggest that you can know youth without living with them.
  • Finally, recognize that the children in your life might actually be useful to your work! Recently, I observed a local playground over a period of eight weeks for a school assignment. I tried to go without my own children in order to maintain focus, but also to maintain my objectivity. A few times, my son came along. And you know what? I gained access to conversations that I would never have heard from the benches on the side of the slide. I had permission to get in the game in a different way. And what he told me about his experience at the playground was in language that was more natural, intimate and authentic than what I heard from kids and parents who were aware, to differing degrees, that there’s a script that’s performed between subject and researcher. Sometimes the kids, tweens and teens we know share useful “whys” about the practices in which they and their peers engage. With all the caveats listed above in mind, don’t be afraid to ask your children what they think. Just keep their responses in context.