Kid Insight

How parents worldwide overlap…and diverge

Insight Strategy Group's Sarah Chumsky uncovers some striking similarities - and differences - between US, Chinese and German parental attitudes toward family dynamics and purchase decisions.
January 10, 2018

Ever wonder how families make decisions? And whether or not parents really control how kids spend their time and money? Insight Strategy Group recently completed a study among 1,200 parents of kids ages two to 11 in the US, Germany and China to compare and contrast attitudes and behaviors around family dynamics and purchase decisions. The results reveal surprising similarities, as well as important differences.

Global commonalities make strategy development easy for brands. But every society has its nuances and quirks, and knowing the areas where markets tend to diverge is the first step in developing an effective strategy. Investigations into cultural norms, parent personality, local economics and environmental factors like weather and safety can uncover the best ways to reach target audiences. In addition, understanding the attitudes and behaviors of both the majority in each population, as well as substantial minorities, can help you identify your ideal targets, in case you have an offering with potential for passionate niche appeal.

How Chinese, German and US parents are similar

A parent’s job
Parents in all three countries describe themselves similarly—as “nurturing,” “protective” and “supportive.” And frankly, we have yet to travel to a country where parents’ attitudes differ in terms of how they see their roles. Heck, if apes could talk, they’d probably say the same. While parents may go about achieving these goals differently, even within countries, their overarching responsibility is making sure their kids are safe and happy, and to set them on the path to success, however that may be defined.

Kid influence on purchases
Parents agree that their kids get input on family purchase decisions, both large and small. Even when parents are the ones swiping the credit card—maintaining the illusion of purchase control—it’s their kids’ wishes that guide what they buy. Keeping the kids happy is easier for parents than tough love. In addition, parents feel that giving kids a say is empowering—when their child can voice an opinion, that’s considered a developmental milestone that parents want to encourage.

An overwhelming majority of parents agree that their kids can persuade them to buy small-ticket items like groceries or toys. But kids’ needs are prioritized even for big-ticket items where parents feel a stronger obligation to weigh in. For example, of the five most important factors in influencing where families choose to go for vacations, four relate to keeping kids engaged and happy: “accommodation options that are family-friendly,” “activities that parents and kids can enjoy together,” “a safe environment where kids are free to explore,” and “activities or attractions kids will love.”

Gender attitudes
Another similarity across markets is the momentum toward gender equality. In all three countries, more than half of parents encourage their children to play with toys that are traditionally for the opposite gender. And the majority of parents also believe that the approaches used to raise girls and boys should be the same. While that’s not everyone, similar stats across markets imply that a global attitudinal shift seems to be emerging that is worth paying attention to.

How the markets diverge

How families make decisions
Basically, if kids want input, they are granted it. But kid interest in family decisions varies by market. On average, Chinese parents are most likely to agree that their child “is really interested in taking part in purchase decisions for our family,” at 88%, compared to 65% in Germany and 61% in the US.

As for behaviors, the study shows that kids in the US and China are extremely likely to request things they see in ads, at 90% and 80%, respectively. Germany trails at 69%. This shows that in China and the US, targeting kids may be enough, but in countries like Germany where ads have less of an impact, you also need to get parents on your side.

How kids spend their time
While all parents agree that play is important to help kids relax, have fun, learn and grow, markets differ on which way the scale tips. Most parents globally say they prefer educational activities and media, but the degree to which parents really push their kids to choose educational pursuits over others varies by country. Culture strongly influences this diversion.

In China, where a large population makes professional success more competitive, “Play to Win” is a foundational attitude among parents. Parents don’t want their kids just to do well, they want them to be #1. A full 84% of Chinese parents say they “strongly agree” with the statement: “It’s important that my child be the best at something,” far outpacing the other markets. As a result, Chinese kids spend more time than kids in the other markets reading and engaging with educational content, as well as participating in individual learning activities like music lessons, tutoring sessions, and flashcards. Chinese kids have the highest access to e-readers, and reading crops up as the #1 most frequent leisure-time activity.

For US parents, “Follow your passions” is a guiding principle. There is less push for playtime to be a learning experience, and more of a sense that playtime is for free exploration and relaxation. Unsurprisingly, US kids over-index in screen activities, including watching TV, movies and clips; using the web; and playing video games and apps. They have the highest access to video game consoles, and parents list playing with licensed toys as their kids #1 most frequent activity.

German parents have a more collective expectation for their kids: “Do your part.” Only 35% of German parents “strongly agree” with the statement: “It’s important that my child be the best at something.” And only 16% “strongly agree” that: “I trust that my child will make the right decisions on his/her own.” German kids spend less time comparatively on screens and over-index in play dates with friends and playing outside.

So what to do?

Consider the global truths

  • Appeal to the universal role that parents see for themselves: nurturers, protectors, supporters
  • Follow the growing trend toward gender inclusivity and equality that parents are embracing for their kids
  • Remember that kids have influence on purchases large and small, especially in categories they take a larger interest in
  • Show both parents and kids that you will make kids happy, since parents prioritize kids’ needs
  • Understand local nuances for each market you target
  • Reflect and appeal to local parents’ goals for their kids, whether those lean toward personal fulfilment, personal achievement, or collective participation
  • Understand the balance of power when it comes to decisions, so you know who to try to reach in marketing
  • Consider that you may want to target a niche but passionate minority in a particular market, vs. the majority

Keep tabs on the rapidly evolving changes

  • Track changes in cultural norms, economic dynamics, parental preferences and environmental factors
  • Stay on top of trends, both globally and locally
  • Continually evaluate the influence of technology on your category and your marketing opportunities, to fuel product development and communications efforts
  • Note the influence of new competitors on consumer perceptions and behaviors


Sarah Chumsky is VP at New York-based Insight Kids, which is comprised of passionate business strategists and developmental experts who spend their waking hours pondering and communicating timeless truths and timely trends. Through innovative qualitative and quantitative market research and consulting, they bring the voice of the child to the creative process, helping their clients create products and experiences that meet kids where they are. 


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