In a world of vast consumer choice, ambiguous product descriptions and self-appointed experts, parents face a minefield when picking out food, toys or other products for their children. A new qualitative study from the University of Copenhagen indicates that naturalness is the current benchmark for consumer choice among parents.
Anne studies the child seat description carefully. Online, she diligently scans consumer tests and parent reviews to be certain that what she buys to protect her daughter won't contain substances that might inadvertently do her harm.
"It actually happens. Children bite into their seats when they've been sitting for a while. That's why I read whatever I can online. It's where I'm most likely to discover whether or not a particular child seat is stuffed with chemicals," says Anne, one of the mothers interviewed in a recent study on the consumer behaviour of parents conducted at the University of Copenhagen's Department of Food and Resource Economics.
The researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 17 parents about considerations governing consumer choice in a world bursting with products, experts, social media and self-declared health gurus. One consideration stood out - naturalness, understood in the sense of organic foods or chemical additive free products.
"Parents need to make good decisions amidst this complexity of possibilities and information. They use naturalness as a way to mitigate the complexity and protect their children from that which they deem to be dangerous, with danger being defined as 'unnatural'," explains the study's main author, sociologist and Postdoc Sidse Schoubye Andersen.
Knowledge society makes us more critical
According to the researcher, we feel a great deal of responsibility for our health today, and thereby, the health of our children. Among other reasons, this is due to an increased political focus on health, as well as our living in a knowledge society where we are bombarded by all sorts of information and have access to vast amounts of knowledge, via the internet for example.
"This increased amount of knowledge is a double-edged sword. While it makes us more informed, knowledge also spawns uncertainty. This is apparent when we make decisions as consumers. In this context, parents experience increased amounts of responsibility on their children's behalf. Parents do not blindly trust corporations and industry. They are noticeably skeptical about whether products were properly tested or not," according to Sidse Schoubye Andersen.
Mother nature is not dangerous
Today, many people value their children being exposed to mud and dirt, and in getting dirty. According to Schoubye Andersen, nature used to be seen as something to protect ourselves from - for the sake of hygiene, for example. Today, parents see exposure to 'natural' filth and grime as important, contrary to having their child come into contact with chemical substances in various products.
"In this naturalness logic, products can do more harm than good, because they risk creating an imbalance in what is natural. Parents consider their toddlers to be perfect pieces of nature. By exposing them to large quantities of unnatural products, they run the risk of interfering negatively with nature," says the researcher.
While researchers allowed parents the option of who would be interviewed, mom or dad, the majority of respondents were mothers. Of the fathers interviewed, they often admitted to being influenced by their partners' attitudes towards what was in the child's best interest.
"When fathers described household decision making, they often referred to leaning towards the mother's views. So even though there are fathers who participate actively in decisions about what is in their children's best interests, it is abundantly clear that the mother has the final say," says Sidse Schoubye Andersen.