Study links certain parenting tactics to increased materialism later in life

Christmas morning
CC BY 2.0 Jim Pennucci

If you want to raise appreciative and grateful children, here's what NOT to do.

The temptation to use holiday gifts as bribery to ensure kids’ good behaviour is hard to resist. It’s a time of year when emotions run high. Stressed parents are busy shopping and wrapping gifts, and many kids come up with absurdly detailed lists of items they’d like (or even expect) to receive. Decent behaviour would seem a logical trade for all the effort parents put in to make the holidays good for their kids.

A new study, however, urges parents to avoid this temptation. The manipulation of material objects as a parenting tactic can lead to kids having certain issues later on in life. The researchers, who surveyed more than 700 adults about their childhood circumstances, relationships with parents, and types of punishments, concluded that three parenting strategies in particular lead to increased materialism:

1) Using gifts as a reward when children have accomplished something, such as good grades or making a team
2) Giving gifts as a way of showing affection
3) Taking away gifts or favourite toys as a way to punish children

Marsha Richins, one of the researchers who is a professor of marketing at the University of Missouri, explains why this is damaging:

“Our research suggests that children who receive many material rewards from their parents will likely continue rewarding themselves with material goods when they are grown – well into adulthood – and this could be problematic.”

Years down the road, kids who are raised with these strategies end up believing that success in life is defined by the quality and number of material goods acquired, and that acquiring material objects will make them more attractive. Adults with an overly materialistic attitude are also at higher risk of marital problems, gambling addiction, financial problems, and a diminished sense of wellbeing, not to mention the environmental toll that comes with increased consumerism.

While the no-bribery conclusion makes sense to me as a parent, there’s another part of me that takes issue with the assumption that kids should continue to receive gifts, regardless of their behaviour. I have certain basic and realistic expectations for my kids’ behaviour that remain constant at all times of the year, under all circumstances, and if those aren’t met, there are consequences. Usually that means cancellation of a social event (i.e. play date), but occasionally it involves material objects, if there’s something I’ve been planning to give my child that he clearly does not deserve at that particular time.

The most important thing is to teach children appreciation and gratitude, and one of the best ways of doing that is a tactic at odds with much of North America’s consumerist society – the “less is more” approach. Kids who are showered in gifts all the time will start to appreciate them less, whereas those who receive fewer will value them more.

Whatever parenting methods you choose, this study offers a valuable reminder to all of us, especially at this materialistic time of year: It’s never a good idea to overemphasize the gifts.

Tags: Consumerism | Gifts | Kids

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