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For the past few months, we’ve been watching with, well, everyone, to see what Miley Cyrus will do next. While most have seen her recent performances at Canada’s MuchMusic Awards and the MTV Music Awards as shedwater moments in the young entertainer’s life, we’ve been watching her shed her softer side for a while. (Remember that infamous pole dance at the Teen Choice Awards?)

In the beginning of 2009, we began to hear kids tell us that Miley’s days were numbered. But at the same time – and throughout 2009 – Miley remained kids’ and tweens’ choice for “favorite” celebrity. But were they reacting to the time-old tale of tween icon turned teen iconoclast?  Probably not. More than likely, Hannah Montana was just less new than it once was. And with Nick’s iCarly showing a more relatable slice of life (and perhaps even more aspirational, with many tweens fantasizing about hosting their own webcast over starring on stage), Hannah seemed to be losing steam.

But then Miley started pushing boundaries. And things started to get interesting.

As Laura Holson wrote in a NYTimes article last Sunday, Fans of Miley Question Her New Path, kids and tweens have been left in the dust while Miley leaves them behind. For kids and tweens, who often feel a deep connection to the characters they watch, Miley growing up feels a little scary, and a bit like a snub. While we might think of todays’ kids and tweens as edgier, more sophisticated and more experimental than in the past, at the heart of it, they’re terrified of taking that next step into the teen years. They may appear to be dressing seductively, but the kind of overt sexuality that Cyrus has put on display is more intimidating than inspiring.

So what’s a tween to do? Well, we predict they’ll do something surprising – tune in to the final season of Hannah Montana, if only to reminisce about the way things “used to be.” But will they stick with her and look up to her when she’s off air? Probably not. For every Miley (Britney, Christina) who grows up, there’s a benign starlet waiting in the wings (Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Selena Gomez and everyone from Glee!). And for teens, Miley (who just nabbed a Glee-tying total of 19 nominations at the Teen Choice Awards for TV, music and fashion) might be hitting their radar for the first time since they left their own tween years behind.

If the lesson for kids and tweens feels somewhat moralistic, what’s the message to brands? First, people might be brands, but when they’re still developing, those brands will – will have to – evolve. As much as marketers and fans might like Miley to stay the way she is, wouldn’t we be a bit worried about her if she did? Second, if you’re a brand, kids and tweens own you – not the other way around. Before your brand changes, check in with your most critical customers: tweens. And finally, recognize that what your youngest consumers want is not to grow up faster or “get older younger,” like so many marketers have mantra’d in the past. For many kids and tweens, the “right now” is comfortable, cozy and confidence-building. And speaking to where they are sometimes requires as much following as it does leading.

So in the next few months, as the frenzy over Miley’s every milestone reaches its peak, we’ll be watching. But instead of seeing her as a brand taking a risk, we’ll be watching as a teen takes on the challenge of finding out who she is and who she wants to be. That seems to us like a story in the making.