Parenting has changed radically over the years and children today seem more like mini-adults. But as youngsters absorb hundreds of brand messages their parents still hanker after traditional ways
Something is happening to modern children – and the way their parents treat them. According to recent research and news stories the average child receives 70 toys a year (more than one a week), 80% of children have their own televisions, half have a video or DVD player, 1 million under-tens have mobile phones and a girl of eight was diagnosed with RSI after spending most of her free time texting since receiving the phone, aged six.
Furthermore, a Government plan to allow teachers to confiscate mobile phones from pupils caught texting in class was dropped after lawyers advised that pupils’ human rights might be infringed. Parenting attitudes have radically changed: when police raided a school disco and seized hidden beer and vodka, many parents protested furiously, having given their children the money to buy it.
Today’s children behave increasingly like “mini-adults” and expect to be treated as such. Their parents are far more willing – and able – to give their children what they want, and are far less comfortable about issuing commands to be obeyed without question. This is especially true where both parents work and in single-parent families. Parents feel guilty about spending insufficient time with their children and attempt to compensate – to the extent that 68% of mothers spend more on their children’s clothes than their own.
Meanwhile, among these “little adults”, last summer’s playground craze was Scoubidou: old-fashioned packets of bright coloured strings for weaving. And although other fads include “death metal”, “gangsta rap” through to explicit and violent video games, they also stretch to traditional books such as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and of course Harry Potter. It is quite normal for a child to follow two or more apparently conflicting trends with equal passion.
So, child culture is complex and its relationship with the adult world even more so. In some ways, children are what they always were, but in others they seem very mature. They are interested in brands and shopping, for instance the average child of ten has internalised some 300 to 400 brands. In other ways, they are more childlike than their parents ever were.
To understand what is happening, forget the relationship between children and adults and consider a relationship between a number of basic child types and a number of basic parent or adult types.
There is, for example, the type of parent ubiquitous at school sports day – the pushy dad standing at the touchline bellowing “encouragement” at his child and abuse at opponents. Then there is the earnest, organic parent giving pained, disapproving looks on discovering that you provided sweets and fizzy drinks at a birthday party. There are countless individual types, but Brandhouse WTS statistical analysis of a questionnaire answered by parents from across the social spectrum reveals two simple questions as being highly significant: What’s your opinion of the modern, fashion-and-entertainment world that many children seem to inhabit? How involved are you in planning and organising your children’s daily lives?
The answers show the nation’s parents segmenting into six main kinds.
The first is “stage-school parents”, who account for 17% of parents. Whether it’s tap-dancing, tennis, child beauty pageants, karaoke, their child will come top at all costs.
For “microwave mums” (25%) home is a digital entertainment multiplex. Children have their own TVs, Sky subscriptions and DVD players. Sit-down family meals are rare, not least because there is no kitchen table.
“Disciplinarian strivers” (22%) believe ties, shiny shoes and ambition all matter – you WILL be an accountant! Native disciplinarian strivers have been boosted by hardworking first-generation immigrants, determined that their children will become respectable professionals.
“Laid-back traditionalists” (21%) teach their children basic manners and values and expect them to behave at school, the rest is free-range “benign neglect” until it is time to find a job. This comes via luck and natural ability, the family business, a local big employer or, failing that, through calling in favours.
“Pushy progressives” (9%) are parents who are relentlessly “on-message”. They disapprove of selective and private education and believe that “ordinary” people would benefit from more children like theirs attending their schools. Unfortunately, the local school is just too bad, so they pull strings for entry into the right state school on the other side of town. Children’s diaries are planned ruthlessly, filling every moment with classes, tutors and worthwhile activities.
The final group are “Fairtrade families” (6%), who prefer their children to call them “Giles and Jocasta” rather than “mum and dad”. They choose home schooling, or the failing local comprehensive with a varied social mix and high murder-rate to broaden their children’s horizons.
Despite the differences, there are common themes through all these stereotypes. One that emerges across almost all groups is the sense that today’s children, for all their influence and possessions, have much less freedom and autonomy than previous generations. Fewer and fewer are allowed to play outdoors, with traffic, paedophiles, bird flu and other tabloid scare-stories perceived as far greater threats than previously.
But even among the most driven, controlling of parents there exists a nostalgia for a “free range” childhood. Yet, in general, brands have been slow to spot this. Apart from Persil with its “Dirt is Good” campaign, very few brands have championed a “let them just be kids” approach.
Symbolic of the emerging zeitgeist, The Dangerous Book for Boys, a 1950s-style “how to'” manual on catapults, tree-houses and conkers, is on its way to becoming a bestseller.
Because children adopt so many trends so quickly, there is a tendency to think trends are all that matter; to divide children into “leaders” and “followers”. Brandhouse WTS research, however, shows surprising numbers of children rejecting the leader/follower theory.
Many children say they don’t care about brands and labels, 20% say they don’t care about games and possessions, a third don’t collect the things that others are collecting and 60% don’t care what car the family has. What’s more – somewhat paradoxically – some of the most powerful trends turn out, upon analysis, to have originated not with popular “style-leader” children, but with “outsider” children who explicitly reject trends.
It’s convenient to think of these nonconformists as geeks or outsiders who just don’t “get it” or “anti-fashion explorers” who do, but who want to do their own thing. There is, in reality, quite often common ground between them in the inner-directed, nonconformist way they see the world. At times the two “outsider” groups are one and the same.
It can be hard for brands to achieve wholehearted adoption by one or other type – and, with the dynamics of child culture, harder still to stay popular. Once an “explorer” brand is picked up by the leading-edge mainstream “persuaders”, explorers move on. Then the followers adopt it and the persuaders move on. Suddenly, it just isn’t cool any more. If some geeks keep using it, that factor only hastens its demise elsewhere.
Some brands manage to find themselves a place in child culture and stay there for years, or decades – Coca-Cola has managed more than a century. While these may catch fleeting fashion well enough, the seat of their appeal is deeper. What they do is tell stories that address the fundamental themes of being young and growing up. Fashions change, but a powerful story stays relevant not just for months but for years or generations.
Children will always discover the pleasure in being naughty as they go through their early years and will always respond to stories and brands that tell them about it, from Just William to Dick and Dom, to Tango’s Orangeman. Substantial numbers of teens will always, feeling like awkward skinny misfits, respond when told that actually that’s a rather cool and attractive thing to be. Witness icons from David Bowie and Marilyn Manson to – in the world of brands – Lynx Click.
The world of children and their parents is ever changing, shaped by the age’s prevalent kinds of parents and children. However, for parents of almost all kinds the appeal of a free-range childhood is strong – even if they are too worried, or too controlling, to act on it. For children of almost all kinds, the details of this season’s trends and fashions do matter – sometimes if only so that they can be rejected – but the underlying stories they tell matter much more and are far more useful in building strong and lasting brands.
Tessa Moore, vice-president of marketing, Walt Disney International EMEA
As a mother myself, I am only too aware of the challenges of parenting in the 21st century. Naturally parents have different approaches – no one size fits all. Furthermore, as every parent knows, no two children are the same, so it should come as no surprise that some are more willing to explore, some are “persuaders” while others are happy to follow.
Maybe it’s not that children are any different from yesteryear, or that they have greater or lesser independence than in our day. They just have many more entertainment choices than most of us ever had. Our job at Disney is to understand what they want and ensure we give it to them how and where they want to consume it, by offering the best quality entertainment options for families. Research such as this helps us to identify what those could be.
Storytelling remains our heartland and we must now “serve up” our stories through myriad channels. From recent successes such as Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to Little Einsteins, the common thread is a strong storyline and great characters.
We must remember that modern children, despite the new and innovative options for entertainment, are the same as they ever were.