Is there anything wrong with buying your child a little “I love you” gift? According to recent research, the answer is yes—those random tokens of affection are turning our children into materialistic brats.
A study in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that parents who use material possessions as bribes, punishment or even gestures of love may be fostering materialism in their kids. Study co-author Marsha L. Richins from the University of Missouri writes: “Using material possessions to express love or reward children for their achievements can backfire. Loving and supportive parents can unintentionally foster materialism in their children despite their best efforts to steer them away from relying on material possessions to find happiness or to judge others.”
Children who receive random gifts from their parents may continue to judge their worth—and the worth of others—by material possessions into adulthood. The study was based on a survey of 700 adults’ responses to questions about their childhoods at three key stages—and how they were rewarded or punished by their parents.
The study focused on three types of gift-giving by parents who also exhibit a lot of warmth in their parenting style:
Conditional material rewards: Giving kids tokens for specific behaviours, such as a good report card, can teach a child to do things for external payoffs instead of personal satisfaction.
Unconditional material rewards: Giving gifts “just because” so that parents can “experience delight in seeing the child’s pleasure.” This can be habit-forming and children who receive presents for no reason may come to expect them. (I am guilty of this!)
Material punishment: Taking away a favourite toy or game for bad behaviour. According to researchers, this can make the possession even more important to a child and places the emphasis on the “thing” and not the behaviour.
I have consciously tried to avoid bribing my kids for better behaviour, but I’m guilty of buying them random gifts just because I knew they’d love it. In fact, I have a small rolling suitcase from the Target sale in my basement right now for my daughter who has wanted one for years. I was going to surprise her with it for no reason, but now I wonder if I should hold off until her birthday. But that’s still nine months away. I feel that my desire to give her the suitcase, and not wait the nine months, is proof that this study may indeed be right. Both my daughter and I may be a little too attached to the happiness we get from our material possessions. I don’t want to create materialistic kids—in fact, I desire the opposite.
But perhaps my actions are speaking louder than words. For now, the suitcase will continue to sit in the basement until I think this one through more carefully.