Understanding consumer behavior has become a vital component in design today. But there’s one important factor that designers don’t often consider when it comes to behavior change: our children. We tend to believe that it’s us adults who lead by example to pass "good behavior" down to the next generation, but increasingly it’s kids leading the way to promote positive change. Call it "trickle-up" behavior change.
As flu season approaches, one particularly visible example of this is the "vampire sneeze." Only a few years ago, it was common for all of us to cover our mouths with our hands when we sneezed or coughed. Do that now, and people will look at you as if you have cooties. The only proper way to sneeze is by crossing your arm over your face and letting loose into the crook of your elbow, à la Dracula on the prowl with his cape. This seemingly unintuitive move comes to use directly from our kids’ schools, where teachers have been advocating it for several years now. When kids came home, parents unconsciously began picking up the practice, which spread, well, faster than a virus. As it began to catch on, some manufacturers lent further support to the practice. Now, it has gone so mainstream it has reached definition status—and even been adopted by the Centers for Disease Control as the recommended way to "cover your cough."
This practice is only one of the many ways in which we are increasingly taking our behavior cues from the next generation. Teens may have always been trendsetters, but as technology speeds up our world, it’s younger and younger children who are setting trends. How many times have we heard of the boomer grandparents who opened Facebook accounts to keep in touch with their millennial grandchildren; or the Gen X parents who lament that their grade-schoolers know how to use their iPhones better than they do? By creating a system that rewards perpetual exploration and discovery, Facebook and Apple have made their products appealing to children, at the same time increasing adoption by older generations. As adults struggle to keep up with the rate of technological change, they look to the more adaptable younger generation so they don’t get left behind.
This phenomenon may also be due to the changing relationship between parents and their kids—a generation or two ago, it was still common for parents to ascribe to the "children are better seen than heard" style of parenting. Parents now go out of their way to please their children, who are eager to share their opinions. We are not only listening, we are listening intently. For example, while recycling has been widely adopted by the mainstream, it’s often kids who are urging their parents to be even greener by using energy-efficient light bulbs or bringing reusable bags to the grocery store. In focus groups we have conducted, parents have reported to us that their children have complained about too much packaging being used in products they buy—motivating them to seek out greener packaging in the supermarket aisle.
When addressing complex issues of behavior change, an approach that includes a kid’s fresh perspective can give designers new tools to approach age-old problems. When we hear truisms like "children are our future," we usually envision blank slates, eagerly waiting for our wise guidance and instruction. But children are becoming our today. They are soaking up what we teach them and mirroring it back to us in concentrated form. They are driving what our present is like, as we race to keep up with their appetite for the new.