What does parenting advice tell us about real parents today?

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, Apr 26, 2011 @ 10:30 AM

In 1920, Psychologist John Watson left academia amidst reports of a scandalous extramarital affair, and found a new home in a slightly unorthodox space: advertising (and J. Walter Thompson specifically). Known as the “Father of Behaviorism” (think Pavlov’s Dog), Watson not only developed a point of view about the lives of children, but also about how parents should raise them. Along the way, he also pioneered the art of marketing childhood expertise. Other experts had already made a name for themselves as parenting experts, including G. Stanley Hall of Adolescence fame and L. Emmett Holt, who wrote one of the definitive texts on pediatrics. But none had embraced being an expert the way Watson did. He understood that complex arguments and caveats might make for good science and studies, but unabashed, unapologetic opinions sell books.Parenting

Watson may have been on to something…While his story seems like history, his approach is alive and well in today’s parenting controversies. Whether experts are debating picking up a crying baby versus letting your little one learn to self-soothe, or promoting unfettered play versus Tiger Momming it, for every parenting opinion there seems to be a quick counter from another expert. What’s a parent to do?

So if expertise is debatable, and more reflective of the mommy market than of the real lives of mommies, is there anything we can learn from parenting magazines, mommy blogs or the vast literature on everything from potty training to prepping your child for the Ivy League? History provides a few lessons in how to look at this data and what we might take from them…

  1. First, experts tend to have their pulse on the fears and anxieties, if not the actual experiences of today’s mothers. The stars in the field might not be accurate assessors of the realities of moms and dads, but they generally understand their angst. Needs aren’t always negative, but if you’re curious about the concerns facing parents’, it’s safe to assume that a theory that takes hold has tapped into a deep-seeded worry about what parents role is today. The key is to understand what’s on their mind – and most importantly, how their real desires and wishes measure up to the extreme advice they’re receiving.
  2. Second, we know that experts aren’t always heeded. In part, it’s the very extreme nature of expert advice in today’s culture that makes their council hard to fully embrace or apply. But parents generally look for a nugget that’s easy to hold, and that they can incorporate into their routines and rituals without really changing their approach. So to predict what strategies will take hold next, look at the literature with an eye towards what’s easy to do, not what’s essential to the theory. 
  3. Finally, we know that expertise doesn’t reach every parent in the same way. Parents adopt different parenting styles, and since they tend to agree with the experts whose ideas validate their own, it’s safe to assume that no single parenting trend will be adopted by all parents. As a brand or product that depends on predicting what moms and dads will want next, living in the middle (or choosing a niche target with all the accompanying risks) might be smartest space to occupy.

Tags: research, parents, parenting

YouthBeat Methods Series: Putting Kids, Tweens and Teens in the Director’s Chair

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, Apr 12, 2011 @ 08:59 AM

Experts in the youth research and marketing space have long posited that understanding and connecting with youth constitutes an art form all its own. Conducting research with youth often requires re-inventing your research suite to include tools that allow youth to authentically communicate their ideas and feelings – while keeping conscious of cost, timing and client needs. Each month, YouthBeat will bring you our POV on the latest (and the lingering) youth research to help you make the most of your youth research budget. 

To complement our year-round quantitative study among youth and parent, our YouthBeat research plan includes qualitative feedback from a panel of families who share their ideas with us every six weeks. We arm them with hand-held cameras and empower them to create their own documentaries on topics we provide. We’ve been using this approach for a while, and we’ve learned a few lessons along the way…

  1. Video documentaries work better for youth than for adults…While adults often cringe and wonder how they look on film, today’s youth (generally) revel in the chance for a few minutes of fame. They see being on film as more of an opportunity to express their ideas than a risk of appearing awkward, and they are far from intimidated by this user-friendly technology.
  2. Putting them in control of the interview inherently gets them talking…Although the best youth moderators listen more than they talk, it’s challenging, in a focus group setting, to provide youth with the chance to tell a story, or to expand on their ideas. The same kid, tween or teen who might provide a socially acceptable short answer in a focus group setting come to life when they’re given time. We provide our youth with an outline of questions, but we know we have a great probe when it prompts a personal story.
  3. We learn more from youth when we allow them to show, not tell. Asking youth to take their camera on the road can lead to shaky shots and sub-par film quality, but by getting a tour of their spaces, a look at their favorite things, or an introduction to the people they care about, we get a richer picture than we could in a focus group, and often, more access than we obtain in an ethnography.
  4. Video documentaries aren’t always a bargain…They require an initial investment in cameras, shipping costs and incentives that are high enough to counterbalance the value of the camera that you’re sending. While you can analyze focus groups in “real time,” video documentaries require the time (and cost of) downloading footage, reviewing and then identifying the story of your study. But they do eliminate the cost of travel and time lost to travel, which may make it a worthy alternative to visiting the diverse and sometimes far-flung places where your audiences live and play. 
  5. Like all research choices, there are trade-offs. Video documentaries can’t replace conversations…We can’t clarify, or follow-up when they say something intriguing or perplexing. With our panel, we’ve learned that the first round of research often serves as a practice run (a luxury you don’t often have when you’re conducting a custom study against a tight timeline), as we almost always have to remind respondents to be very specific in their responses and to spare us no detail! And we can’t control compliance in the same way that we can when we’re in the room with youth (it’s harder to sit in a focus group room and not talk than to send back a blank video camera and bypass your incentive…).

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to youth research, but we think video documentaries are a method worth trying. If your topic is right, and your budget allows, try putting youth in the director’s chair.

Tags: video documentaries, research methods

What Would Justin Do?

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, Apr 05, 2011 @ 10:19 AM

Saturday’s Kids Choice Awards included a few surprises…Josh Duhamel attended dressed as Justin Bieber...Selena Gomez beat out Miley Cyrus for favorite TV actress (not really a surprise), but Miley Cyrus did snag the award for favorite movie actress! And whether they were really surprised or not, many presenters and winners got slimed.

But as we mentioned in our last blog, Justin Timberlake’s Kid's Choice Awardstake-home of the Big Help Award was not a surprise. Yet his speech was one of our favorite moments of the evening.

Perhaps it’s predictable that the most decorated celeb in Kids Choice Award history would strike just the right tone with this audience…He’s been around the block a few times, but who knew that this former boy-bander and Brittany beau might also be that summer camp counselor you wish you had. Timberlake may have been recognized for his work with Shriner’s Hospital and authentically “green” golf course, his speech also showed that he understands how to talk to today’s youth in a way that makes them stand up and listen. What can we learn from him?

  1. First, get a little silly…Timberlake peppered his more profound statements about giving back and going green with an on-going burp joke. He promised a great big burp to celebrate the occasion, and this oldie but goodie made him both vulnerable and powerful at the same time. Burping might be frowned upon at the average award show, but Justin realized that his audience needed to shake out the sillies before they could focus on the serious stuff (a lesson that many preschool teachers heed).
  2. Second, don’t underestimate kids. While Timberlake’s aforementioned follies signaled to attendees that he did not take himself too seriously, his next words showed them that he did take them seriously. We could debate whether or not bringing up world catastrophes is appropriate content for a mixed age audience who spends their days alternatively pondering wizards, vampires and sponges who live in a pineapple under the sea, but Timberlake went for it. He rhetorically asked them if they knew about things going on in the world, “like in Japan,” then told them “that’s exactly the kind of thing you can help with.” He reminds us that when adults assume that kids can make a difference, kids assume they’re right.
  3. Finally, Timberlake recognized what they already do…Instead of merely encouraging them to go out and make a difference, he first took a moment to recognize what they’ve already done. He asked them to stand up if they’ve ever helped anyone…A parent, a friend, an organization in their community. He made “help” inclusive, not elite or elusive, and he first pointed out how they’ve already gotten some of the good stuff done. Of course, this also served to get the whole crowd on their feet (he is an entertainer, you know).

So when you’re trying to motivate, inspire or just inform kids, look at the way the people they admire treat them. You’re likely to find some of the same patterns. They might be speaking a language that’s more relevant to your own than you think.

Tags: Nickelodeon, kids tweens teens, music