News Flash: Kids Are Still Kids

For the past several years, youth marketers have been clamoring about kids growing up faster. We've presented on "Age Compression" and the KGOY (Kids Growing Older Younger) effect at conferences, we've written books about it, and we've created news stories about the "acceleration" through childhood. We've pointed to how kids "age out" of traditional toys earlier, their growing influence in the home, and their expanding consumption of more mature content. 

As if they were a new breed of humans, we've been intrigued by their technical savvy, their "provocative" attire and their affinity for tween, teen and even adult brands and marketing. As an industry, we've scanned the kid environment and said, "Yep, those kids sure are growing up faster ... my childhood wasn't like that at all." Like college freshman in our first developmental psychology class, we've created a theory that ... commence the rebuttals now ... is simply not true.

To push the envelope a bit further (and to keep the rebuttals coming, I'm sure), I would contend that there is increasing evidence that two opposite phenomena are at play:



1. Kids are actually staying younger longer
2. The lines between parenthood and childhood have become increasingly blurred

But I'll save each of those topics for a later posting, as they definitely warrant their own discussion.

The reality is that kids are still very much kids. They love playing outside, making up games with their friends, laughing at silly jokes, watching cartoons (and slapstick live action), pretending to be famous, and, yes, even snuggling up with their parents on the sofa.

In every qualitative and quantitative study we've fielded (or reviewed) in countless categories over the past 10+ years, the learning has been clear: the fundamentals of childhood haven't gone anywhere. The core needs and wants -- ranging from the desire to create their own realities to the need to be accepted by peers and adults -- have not changed. Aside from the scientific evidence of kids' accelerated physical maturation, kids are not developing more quickly -- particularly when it comes to their academic, social or emotional maturity.

Yes, kids are fulfilling their needs differently than in yesteryear. But that has always been the case. Playing "Asteroids" was once "advanced" and a symbol of the inevitable demise of childhood to our parents. Likewise, our parents dancing to "American Bandstand" was, to their parents, a sign of kids acting like adults. Kids will always be engaged by what's available, culturally relevant, aspirational, and, quite frankly, what we as marketers glamorize and encourage them to like. But instead of being careful students of history or childhood, we've created industry folklore that is indeed full of myths:

  • The fact that a kid likes listening to an iPod does not mean they have outgrown childhood. (Can we say Walkman, 8-track and LP?)
  • The fact that little girls love Bratz does not mean they want to be teens. (But it does mean they still want to fantasize, be glamorous and emulate contemporary icons.)
  • The fact that boys like Grand Theft Auto does not mean they want to be teen thugs. (But it does point to kids' enduring desire to safely push the boundaries.)
  • The fact that young kids play with cell phones doesn't mean they want to be 35 year olds. (But it does remind us that kids always role play with their parents' possessions.)
  • The fact that kids stay inside to play video games doesn't mean they don't want to be running around outside anymore. (Hello! Have we conveniently overlooked parental constraints, safety concerns, dearth of neighborhoods, and console connectivity?)
  • The fact that kids like to play online doesn't mean they've outgrown good old-fashioned kid fun. (It points to our inability to see the parallels in paper dolls and Stardoll or a Cabbage Patch Kid and a Webkinz.)

The truth is that we've done a great job of developing innovative products, virtual worlds, and marketing campaigns that:

  • Are empowering to kids
  • Leverage the newest technologies
  • Put a contemporary twist on timeless needs
  • Provide virtually limitless access to adult content
  • Mimic modern teen and adult behaviors, and
  • Push the envelope to reach a broader demographic.

And then we step back and say, "Wow, those kids sure are growing up quickly. Look at all the teen products tweens like, and look at all the tween products kids like." In short, our analysis of the "evidence" is flawed.

My concern is that as marketers we have been so eager to "tween-ify" kids and so eager to "up-age" our products and communications that we've abandoned the rigorous quest for insights and opportunities that meets kids' evergreen needs.

The landfill of failed products and marketing campaigns for kids is littered with far too many who have convinced themselves that "If we design for a 12 year old, 6 years olds will love it, too." It's time we get reconnected with the realities of childhood.

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