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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2009, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
KGOY reconsidered: kids just want to be kids
Article Type: Executive insight From: Young Consumers, Volume 10, Issue 3
Paul KurnitPaul Kurnit is an internationally renowned marketing, advertising and entertainment expert. As founder and president of Kurnit Communications, PS Insights and KidShop, he extends his marketing and management expertise in customized engagements for brand innovation and ideation, new product development, business and brand strategy, market planning, research and communications solutions. He can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org, 914 737-0300 or on the web at www.kidshopbiz.com
It was always an inelegant term. KGOY. But who knew how incomplete, misleading and business bashing a label it would be? Kids growing older younger (KGOY). We started using the acronym in the early 1990s. Like all stereotypes, the concept of kids growing older younger was based on a body of identifiable behavior. Kids were emulating older kids. The behavior was not new. But the manifestations of it in fashion, music, video gaming and street behavior were. It was a perfect storm of kids and commerce. Aspiration and emulation could now be observed and objectified in the products kids wanted and the play they seemed to prefer.
The perception was that kids no longer wanted to be kids. A once monolithic sense of youth market had now become much more precisely segmented. Where kid media segments had previously been purchased as kids 2-11 and teens 12-18 the segmentation landscape was becoming more sophisticated and shifting downward. It looked like Table I.
What marketers began both to talk about and target was a shift in behavior. Preschoolers were beginning to act like kids. They would cast off their preschool toys and adopt play patterns and product requests that included fashion dolls and action figures. Older kids were “graduating” from classic toy play earlier. The “conventional wisdom” was kids were growing up faster. These new tweens were growing into and out of toys earlier. This presumed market shift made the toy industry apoplectic. The preschool market was shrinking as kids shed their baby toys earlier. And the general market was also shrinking as kids discarded their toy play by age eight.
But the great irony was even though there were some significant truths to the KGOY prescription there were some very real cross currents, as well. Sure, kids wanted to act older and accrue the benefits afforded older children such as staying up later and sleepover dates. But kids still just wanted to be kids. Older kids were still playing with toys. They just did not talk about it because the marketplace suggested that toy play was longer cool for a ten-year old.
I was one of the marketing “villains” who talked about this new reality of kid-dom. I would go to conferences and reflect the KGOY mantra. Age compression was the new reality. My presentations morphed from kid trends – celebrations of sports, music, TV, movies, food, videogames and more to what I started to refer to as “headline horrors.” Ripped from the newspapers were story headlines that read:
“Homework overload … gobbling up family time and frustrating children and their parents” (Toronto Star).
“No time for napping in today’s kindergarten” (NY Times).
“Preschool expulsion rate at issue” (Wall Street Journal).
This was rich stuff, if depressing. There was a virtual daily diet of newspaper stories about childhood abduction, teenage pregnancies, drug and cigarette use among kids, youth alcohol abuse and eight year old girls going through puberty. Of course, the misdirection here was that this was not necessarily kid normative behavior. These were the headline stories that sold papers and delivered a fair dose of fear and outrage.
As the millennium came, I questioned what was really going on. The traditional toy business had tanked. The big guys lay victim to age compression. Kids had checked out of toys at age eight. The presumption was all was lost unless it was electronic. Hasbro launched Hit Clips, Video Now and Chat Now – all toyetic versions of adult electronics. Could KGOY truly have become so pervasive that it had changed the face and function of being a kid? I had my doubts.
So in 2003 in close collaboration with C&R Research and their KidzEyes division, we set out to do the first comprehensive Tween State study. The objective was to find out from kids themselves what was going on. What were they thinking? What did they care about most? How did they feel about toys? About play? About friends and family? About school? About food and diet? About technology? About advertising? We have now completed three tween studies – one in 2003, one in 2005 and one in 2007. We are looking forward to ongoing learning in the 2009 study. And, what did we find?
Overall, and overarchingly, kids want to be kids. The emulation/aspiration equation is real and evergreen. But kids enjoy the special and unique virtues and values of being kids. And they would not trade in that freedom for anything. The findings from the three studies were consistent across all key issues. The 2007 KidShop/KidzEyes study was fielded among 767 tweens, 8-12 years old across North America. Highlights of the research include the following.
The best thing about being a kid (67 percent) is playing and having fun. Kids told us they valued unstructured play in addition to toys, sports and videogames. Most tweens play with toys. And over 40 percent play with toys for more than an hour each day. The second best thing about being a kid (cited by 44 percent of the sample) was the idea that they do not have to work or pay bills. Third (28 percent) was friends and family. An eight-year-old girl summed it up by saying, “You don’t need to pay bills. Only kids can go on kids roller coasters. Kids get toys. You don’t have to pay for the toys you get. And that [is] why I think being a kid is the best.” A ten year old boy reported “The best thing is that you are not old … life is happy and you can have more fun … you can go fun places … you get to play with toys … you get to go to school … your parents buy you stuff … you don’t have to work.”
Kids told us that the hierarchy of what’s most important in their lives is family, friends and school in that order. Family trumps friends every time and re-sets the conventional wisdom that friends are the most important fixture in kids’ lives (Table II). That may be true, but the shift from mom and dad to friend centered comes later, in the teen years.
When we asked kids who is most important in their lives mom and dad rule (Table III).
The family centeredness in kids’ lives carries over into time spent and activities engaged together. In the 1990s we observed that families were becoming more splintered in terms of mealtime. More and more kids stated they had dinner with family 4 times or less during the week. Since then, the family dinner occasion has been making a steady rebound. Today, both boys and girls reveal they eat dinner with their family six times each week, on average five times at home and once each week at a restaurant.
Kids also tell us there are a number of activities they enjoy doing with family. First among them is going on vacation (57 percent) followed by eating out and playing games (34 percent), watching TV or videos (33 percent), going to the movies (26 percent) or just hanging out together (23 percent).
With so much written about the stress factor in kids’ lives regarding time, homework and family pressure, we found this largely not to be true. In fact, fully 74 percent of kids volunteer that they have enough free time to do the things they want to do. Only 46 percent of kids say they have too much homework (I say only 46 percent because it is a time tested idea to say they endure too much homework). Only 24 percent of kids say they have too many responsibilities. And as a direct response to today’s conventional complaint that kids are over programmed, a mere 13 percent of kids say they are engaged in too many activities. Kids consistently reported that their lives are just fine, thank you, that they were really OK with school, time pressure and the activities that populate their Monday-Friday world.
In asking kids about the worst things about being a kid some rather predictable responses emerge. The big bad four are rules (44 percent), school (35 percent), limited independence/freedom (20 percent) and responsibilities (18 percent). Common complaints are much the same as we could have heard from generations before:
People telling me I’m too little to do things (eight year old girl).People don’t listen to you. You get picked on a lot. Have to do lots of chores (nine year old girl).School. I don’t like sitting in my seat most of the day (ten year old boy).I don’t like having to go to bed too early (11 year old girl).I don’t like going to school because I hate school work. I don’t like doing chores. I don’t like getting in trouble (12 year old boy).
When we asked kids about their greatest fears and concerns, not surprisingly, their two biggest issues surround school and family. Doing well in school is consistently no. 1 (41 percent). Someone in my family dying is no. 2 (27 percent). Other issues that concern kids are people they know getting hurt or sick (21 percent), not having enough money (16 percent), relationships with friends (14 percent), growing up (14 percent) and physical appearance (13 percent).
With the exception of playing video games (a dominantly boy activity) girls and boys generally agree about what they most like to do with their free time: watch TV (both at 50 percent), hang out with friends (46 percent girls, 44 percent boys) and spend time with family (39 percent girls, 33 percent boys). Boys select playing video games as their number one pastime (72 percent) with only 25 percent of girls selecting video gaming as a preferred activity. Boys also include sports as a top activity (43 percent) to girls’ inclusion at 24 percent.
With all the attention on the world-wide obesity epidemic, mixed news emerges from kids about healthy lifestyle. Today’s kids have an awareness about diet and health, but they are reasonably clueless about how to activate a healthy lifestyle. Parents and school curriculum does not seem to help. And the food companies in removing “bad for you” ingredients have not made kids partners in a new movement toward better eating and energy balance. In fact, the data across our three Tween State studies indicate growing confusion about diet and lifestyle rather than increasing clarity and positive behavior (Figure 1).
Overall, kids are telling us they do not get enough exercise, they do not have a clear sense of or commitment to eating healthy and only half of them have parents who are actively involved in healthy eating.
In terms of peer pressure and adult treatment of them, by and large kids are OK. Peer pressure is omnipresent, but reported at relatively low levels. And the roughly one-third of kids who complain about adult restrictions on them is consistent with past studies and likely a similar dynamic to Gen Y, X and Boomer parent complaints in years past (Figure 2).
Figure 2 Kid pressures and frustrations
In the tween years, kids’ ideas about their future is still filled with a sense of the possible. They dream big and believe that their aspirations can be fulfilled. This is still the age where a refreshing complement of fantasy meets reality in stories of who they will become later in life. When we asked them what they want to be when they grow up and why, here are several reactions:
I want to be a movie star. So I could lead the popular life. I could have lots of money and be rich and have a big house (eight year old girl).I either want to be a professional baseball player or a broadcaster for football, baseball, or basketball. Because I live for sports. Sports is in my blood, possibly my genes. I really like sports and would not trade it for anything in the world (nine year old boy).When I grow up, I would like to be president, later become an actress, and then retire in Hawaii. I am really concerned about our country (president). I can dramatize any situation (actress). If I do become an actress and president, then I should have enough money to move to Hawaii (plus my home [economics] teacher says that people who are really sure of what they want to do usually get it. And my math teacher says that outgoing people like me usually become actors and actresses) (12-year-old girl).
Technology is a pervasive part of kids’ lives today. North of 75 percent of both boys and girls own CD players, video games for their computers and handheld video games. Both girls (81 percent) and boys (75 percent) say they choose their own clothes. They go grocery shopping with their moms (girls 68 percent, boys 54 percent). Increasingly, they are giving money to charities (girls 47 percent, boys 36 percent).
They are getting more critical about advertising with only 35 percent of girls and 36 percent of boys saying they like advertising. This is significant because past conventional wisdom had it that advertising was enjoyed by kids because the products advertised to them (e.g. toys, games, food, snacks etc.) tapped into the fun and delicious things in their lives. Today’s kids are getting more and more savvy and critical about what is being sold to them as well as how the mass messages are selling them.
Boys and girls talk about the other sex with their friends (girls at 67 percent, boys at 47 percent). And, more than two-thirds of all boys and girls go to PG-13 rated movies even through the rating suggest that these films’ content is inappropriate for kids 12 and under. This teen aspirational behavior is neither surprising nor is it really new news.
Today’s kids are very savvy about money and receive it in lots of different ways. Average weekly allowance it $6.30, but only one-third of kids say they get an allowance. Kids recognize it is easier to “make more” by not having an established stipend each week. They receive money from parents and family as gifts (74 percent) from doing chores around the house (51 percent), from family members who just give them money (47 percent) from parents who give them money when they need it (42 percent) and from getting good grades (27 percent).
In general, boys spend their own money on electronics and accessories, food and toys while girls spend their money on food, toys and dolls, electronics and accessories and clothes. There is a boy/girl tradeoff in spending on electronics vs clothes (Figure 3).
The same pattern holds true for kids’ online shopping with electronics and accessories being a boy focus and clothes and shoes receiving more girl attention and purchases (Figure 4).
Figure 4 Kids spending online
Kid savvy about money is also reflected in how they spend their own money relative to how “they spend” parent money. Kid money goes for impulse items such as chewing gum, candy and soda pop. But, for boys video games joins the list and for girls clothes makes the top five.
The top products kids ask their parents to buy them also reflects a girl boy skew reflecting the apparel focus for girls and the video game focus for boys (Table IV).
We asked kids what they thought of as the top five products made especially for kids. The responses were interesting for two reasons. Not only do kids cite some of the culturally hot products of the day, but in their egocentricity, they believe that if they are kid desirable, they are products made especially for them (Table V).
The iPod was the hot kid item for Christmas 2007 along with video games, toys and games as the most desired holiday gifts. Nintendo Wii has not only captured kid imagination and interest, but as a new active paradigm in video game play, adult and family interest in the play pattern has also enjoyed widespread appeal. Not surprisingly, kids tell us they learn about new products from TV advertising (75 percent), friends (55 percent) and in store (51 percent).
The bottom line of all of this research is kids just want to be kids. Of course, kids aspire to be older with all of the benefits that accrue to older kids. But, tween values reflect a range of traditional kid behaviors. Parents are the center of kids’ universe. Play is the driver of kid activity. School and doing well in school is the central concern in their lives. Yawn … where’s the new news? The important news is the recalibration of KGOY to a greater celebration of kids enjoying being kids.
In fact, over these past several years more and more marketers have begun to embrace a fuller, richer, more textured perspective of kids. We now have a new term as an important counterweight to KGOY. Kids growing older younger is now counter balanced by kids staying younger longer (KSYL). The toy industry is prospering with a resurgence of 1980s phenomenon toys including My Little Pony, Littlest Pet Shop, Strawberry Shortcake, Transformers and GI Joe. Barbie is putting up a better fight against Bratz. Kids are absolutely enjoying their new iPods and Nintendo Wii’s but that is just part of the KGOY/KSYL landscape that defines today’s whole child both content in their kiddie ways but also aspiring to what is cool, new and a little bit older. Actually, pretty classic behavior.
Play is a high ground of growing up. But, where are the new play patterns for this new generation? In gaming, get up and active play (Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero, Nintendo Wii) is certainly a new and welcome paradigm of play. But, where is the next “action figure” innovation as represented by Kenner’s Star Wars back in the 1980s? What is the next innovation in great classic, non-electronic play?
And what about kids as change agents? What is the next generation of great tasting, really good for you foods that kids will champion for themselves and their families much in the way that they advanced a generation of seatbelt safety by telling their parents to buckle up? Tomorrow will be better and greener because kids today are admonishing parents for not recycling and are the new ambassadors of sustainability in the household. Kids do just want to be kids. But their common sense, passion for play and fair play are the stuff of social movements that make us all a bit more sensible and a lot better.
For great qualitative or quantitative research about families and kids contact Paul Metz, C&R Research and KidzEyes. He can be reached at email@example.com, 312 828-9200 or on the web at www.crresearch.com