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How Kids Are Remaking Our Consumer Behavior

Perhaps more than at any other time, the adults of tomorrow are determining our today, writes Continuum’s Susan Fabry.

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.

[Images: Parking Spot and Tag via Shutterstock]

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  • S Kirn

    Interesting article. I'm curious though about the claim that kids have had an impact on family recycling behavior. I hear that a lot, but where is the research that proves that claim?

  • Sneak AdTack

    Advertising and marketing is is in the behavior manipulation business. Plain and simple. Kids need to be media-literate to understand before they decide to accept advertising.

    It's tough to crack down on sneaky advertising if everyone is accepting. First step is awareness.

  • john riley

    Your comments ring very true. However, your tone seems to be that this is a good thing?

  • OldSneezer

    I was sneezing into the crook of my elbow before FastCompany wrote about it...

  • hypnotoad72

    I tell my kids what to do.

    They can cry, bleat, whinny, and moan, but they do not get everything they beg for.

    I didn't get everything I wanted as a kid, either.  (Though I'll admit I did get a lot, of which I've been grateful for...)

    I don't like how marketing manipulates children into getting their parents to respond and solely to make the company doing the marketing rich.  It is, amongst other things, unethical.

  • In the Weeds

    So, are we all going enjoy ice cream for dinner then? I'm pretty sure it's the confluences of parenting-children-educators-marketers leading the blurred lines of children overinfluencing adults here. Have you seen the emotional manipulation of advertisements geared toward busy parents?

    More children AND adults would be better off if we stopped letting them dictate consumption choices. They are not fully baked humans, people. They need guidance, challenge, structure and independence. They don't need to decide what to make for dinner or what minivan to buy. 

  • Girija Rao.A

    One can easily understand and empathize with the parents and the situations.Yet parenting techniques are no rocket science. It is good to have the knowledge about the age group of the kids and the way they take  guidance or do not,I am one of the persons who is very keen to give happy parenting guidance ,till  10 yrs kids. I developed a new idea and conduct workshops in different conversational styles. Please visit "" for more details, to be a happy parent ! 

  • Sartajzzz

    I agree. Advertisers manipulate children with a world of fantasy and then children force parents in making irrational, emotional, stupid choices. I think it's better to do what humans have done for 2 million years: adults taking care of children, transmitting them culture and knowledge and disciplining them. But, if we have an occasional opportunity to learn something from our children, it must be respected.

  • Susan Fabry

    agree that there are companies that influence kids for manipulation and that kids
    guidance, challenge, structure and independence,” but as with most things, there
    are positive and negative ways to use the actions of others. Recognizing the
    strength children have to see events around them without the baggage many
    people carry around can be an insightful tool for breaking bad habits or
    helping to create new ones. As adults we need to choose whether to listen
    or not to listen and make an informed decision, without simply dictating because we can. 

  • kekoa12

    "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."

    Kids aren't leading anything. They're merely emulating/repeating what's being taught to them by adults. Your two examples illustrate this. "Vampire coughs" and "complaints about over packaging" come straight from the mouths of adults. Show me one kid under 10 years old who, on their own, makes a comment about over packaged toys. 

  • hypnotoad72

    Trickle-up is good for economics, since nothing has trickled down since that paradigm's implementation 30 years ago (at least based on inflation, wages have not kept up and that means less spending, which in turn lowers company profit because fewer customers are able to spend, but before I digress into a ramble of macroeconomics...)

    I do think children CAN be a source and force for change, if we are listening for the RIGHT question.

    Yes, many qualities have to be passed down - ethics, morality, a sense of right and wrong, conscientiousness and compassion toward one's fellow citizen, throwing out milk only when it smells bad rather than summarily dumping it out on the expiration date, etc, etc...  but children can be shrewd at times as well. 

    With the right context, I would definitely listen and consider.

    But not for marketed plastic tripe.

  • Susan Fabry

    course, kids listen to adults and repeat, but it often in the question format of “why?”.
    When kids ask the challenging “why?” questions to their parents such as “why is
    there so much packaging on that product” or “why don’t we use a re-usable bag like
    that person over there?” The parent is forced to reconsider their own decisions
    and answer the question as best as they can. The answer can cause a behavior
    change that is in turn influenced by the kid they are responding to. I was just working
    on a packaging project where I had several parents tell me that they themselves
    do not care about recycling but their kids see what they buy and ask about
    recycling packaging, the parents went on to say that they just feel better when
    possible to buy the greener option because of that. Yes, there are 10 year olds
    who unprompted in the moment will ask about our environment what their parent
    is doing to make it better.

  • BongBong


    Although parents love to imagine the whole universe revolves around them and their kids, the fact is there are now more unmarried single people in the US for the first time. This is a far more significant social barometer that should be analyzed more closely.

  • hypnotoad72

    It is not as much how many parents a child has (especially as nobody talks about a child having 3 parents, much less the age old but astute concept of "it takes a village") but the quality of the environment in general.

    The issue is far, far larger than the usual "nuclear family"... because
    society got nuked some time ago and the fallout is partly encompassed by
    children lacking role models, using television as nannies and unless
    you have PBS you're find there are few choices for media outlets that
    don't hype up every naughty action for the sake of cheap ratings, and
    the media exists to make a profit - not to be good stewards of your
    kids.  And I don't care for PBS, either, but for different reasons... but since everything is moving from print media to virtually uncontrolled visual sources (television, portable tablet devices with little parental control, etc)...

    But I might say this: Anyone who buys into the tripe of Thatcher ("there is no such thing as society, only individual men, women, ...") and Ayn Rand (who openly railed against collectivism and community until she got cancer and then sought social security, using it in her husband's name and likely because she did not want her own name to be seen...)