Of course, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood appealed to our YouthBeat team long before it garnered awards and attention – it’s a longitudinal “study” that covers the kind of day-to-day truth of a single child that serves as a model for the kind of research we wish we always got to do! In this case, the objective is simply to reveal the reality of a kid as he journeys through tweendom and teendom, into young adulthood. We couldn’t help but watch in awe as all the characters (mom and dad included) confronted the ups and downs of family life. We were compelled to keep our eyes on the boy at the movie’s center as he sought agency within the confines of the limited and limiting life in which he found himself. It’s tricky to use a fictional character as a font for real-life insights, but we’ll be so bold. Here are our five of our favorite insights inspired by Boyhood:
- Growth happens. Of course, many of us know that kids go through stages as they go through ages. But so often, we think about growth through the lens of development. What we can easily miss is the way that relationships shift and morph, how their sense of their place in the world evolves, but also realigns. Children don’t grow in neat patterns, but rather in fits and spurts, through stagnation as much as stimulation. The tale of this boy suggests that kids are constantly growing, but not always upward and onward.
- Kids are resilient. So much has been said about Boyhood as of late, but we haven’t heard enough about the resilience that the kid characters display. Resilience is one of the most valuable characteristics today’s kids could have, and it’s often earned despite, not because of, the adults in a child’s life. Still, Mason managed to have it. Our insight: it’s easy to bemoan all the ways in which youth culture and family life threaten resilience – it’s harder to notice it when it’s right under your nose.
- Families are systems. We often debate the role of kids and parents: is one more influential than the other, who “nags” whom, and what moment do the scales tip in one direction or another (especially when it comes to purchase decisions). But Boyhood reminds us of the complex interconnectivity apparent in the everyday life of kids and families. There is no such thing as a “decision-maker” that applies to every situation. And even when parents assert authority, kids (and particularly teens) often override. It’s not that the effort to understand the shopping or decision-making process isn’t worthwhile. It just requires closer observation and more flexibility than we often give it.
- Observe the silence. When it comes to research, particularly with boys, it’s important to listen to (and respect) the silence. We often assume that every insight and every idea can be articulated and expressed if just the moderator would ask the magic question. We sometimes believe that we can see and hear what young respondents believe and know if we just go to the right space. But many of the most important moments in children’s lives are bathed in silence – not expression. They happen in spaces that are intentionally invisible, in places that are hard to access by design. Our job is not always to reveal something not meant to be revealed but rather to notice and acknowledge that what happens quietly and what is said softly is as important as any statistic or proclamation.
- Life is in the everyday. It’s easy to consider children’s lives as a series of milestones and achievements, capabilities mastered and skills gained. But in understanding children, and in finding ways to connect with them, it’s often more important to note the everyday matters that make up their lives and make them who they are. This can be the fodder for great content and products as much as the disruptions and events that are easy to talk about and to include in PowerPoint presentations. But truly understanding youth requires the patience to tell a story in which nothing “happens” as much as everything unfolds.