As a parent and scholar who has studied materialism for much of her professional life, Marsha Richins had long pondered the following question: Does dangling goods in front of children as a reward for good behavior or yanking them away as a form of punishment contribute to materialism when those kids grow up?
After half a decade studying the matter as a marketing professor at the Robert J. Trulaske Sr. College of Business at the University of Missouri, she says she believes that there’s a connection. Ms. Richins and Lan Nguyen Chaplin, an assistant professor of business administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago, are publishing a paper saying so in The Journal of Consumer Research in April.
Most of us get that materialism isn’t ideal, and research over the years has tied it to gambling, debt, marriage conflict and decreased happiness, among other things. So Ms. Richins was surprised to find that few people seemed to have looked into the potential drawbacks of what she and her colleague refer to as “material parenting.”
Plenty of research exists that shows that material rewards for things like good grades tend to reduce intrinsic motivation. But that shouldn’t be a reason not to study their use any further. “To me, it’s a big oversight, because parents reward kids all of the time,” Ms. Richins said. “You can’t just say that we’re not going to study it.”
And so she and Ms. Chaplin did, using retrospective surveys of adults answering questions about their current money habits and the tactics their parents used in rewarding and disciplining them.
They found that when parents use material objects to reward children for good behavior or performance (or take them away when they’re bad), those children grow up to be adults who associate buying and owning nice things with success and accomplishment. If you get material rewards as a child, you will believe, more than other adults, “that products are important to the construction and expression of the self,” they wrote.
As always with academic research, proving causality is difficult. Other parenting behaviors (and choices parents make about where to raise their children in the first place) can have plenty of impact too. Still, the research raises practical questions for parents who don’t want their children to grow up thinking the most important things in life are things. If putting toys, gadgets, money and the like at the center of both rewards and punishment leads to too much emphasis on those things, what’s a good alternative?
“I think it’s probably time, attention and communication,” Ms. Richins said. “Providing encouragement, comfort and having fun. Spending time is the best present you can give them.”
But what we do about punishments? We take things away because it’s a great way of getting children’s attention and it often makes them compliant. I suggested that the moral of the study might well be to take away privileges, not objects, as a form of punishment. Ms. Richins worried about the limitations of this solution, given that many privileges have to do with more intermittent experiences or the ability to use valued objects, say driving a car. Still, good old-fashioned grounding would seem to fit here, even if it means missing an important party or trip. Or maybe especially if it means missing big events.
The paper does not address the kinds of inoculations that might keep kids from becoming materialistic in the first place (though there is some evidence elsewhere that certain interventions can bring already materialistic kids back in line). And the authors expressed doubt in the paper that parents inclined to use desired objects to shape behavior would use any preventive measures anyway, noting that “it is difficult to imagine a tractable strategy aimed at changing ingrained parenting practices.”
That perspective seems too negative to me. After all, we’ve moved away from spanking and back toward more breast-feeding in recent decades. Surely we can shift away from material rewards and punishments and back toward praise and enthusiasm when our children accomplish something.
One possibility that we agreed on was Ms. Richins’s suggestion that parents who insist on continuing to reward their children with some material items also rely more heavily on the power of gratitude, a trait that researchers have linked to all sorts of good outcomes. A book called “Making Grateful Kids” has plenty of tactics for getting started. After all, children who truly appreciate what they have stand a pretty good chance of growing up to be adults who don’t want all that much more.
Ron Lieber is the Your Money columnist for The New York Times. He is the author of the forthcoming “The Opposite of Spoiled,” about parenting, money, values and raising the kinds of children all parents want to push out into the world, no matter how much money they have (Harper Collins, February, 2015). He hosts regular conversations about these topics on his Facebook page and welcomes comments here or privately, via his website. The Opposite of Spoiled appears on Motherlode on alternating Thursdays.
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