Parents are unconsciously setting their kids up to be materialists with fragile egos

Image: AP Photo/Inivision/Ryan Miller
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

You might want to think twice before piling up on birthday gifts for the young one this year.

Researchers from the University of Missouri asked adults how they were rewarded or punished as children, for behavior and grades. They compared that to how much the same adults associated material things with happiness and success. They were measuring the effects of “material parenting, in which parents use material goods to express their love or to shape children’s behavior.”

The study will be published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Moms and dads with ”parental warmth” teach their children responsibility by requiring them to earn the things they want through good behavior. Sometimes they just want to show their child how much they love them, with a present. The researchers found that the children who experienced this kind of parenting were more likely to grow up into materialistic adults, who believe possessions are a sign of success.

Oddly, the gifts didn’t make children more likely than others to think that material things would make them happy. They just learned to judge themselves and others based on possessions. Attaching a thing as the reward for doing something good may teach kids to think of skills as a path to material items rather than to their own well being, according to the study.

The material attachment extends to punishment, too. Taking things away from kids when they do something bad led them to be more insecure as adults, and that insecurity made them associate material things with success.

So is being materialistic really that bad? It’s ok to a point, the American Psychological Association notes. After all, people need money to live, and having money isn’t harmful if you’re able to separate the pursuit of money from the pursuit of experiences and fulfilling relationships.

But studies have shown that people who associate material things with success and status are more likely to blow traumatic events out of proportion, and to experience depression, loneliness, and relationship troubles.

There are a few ways to minimize the effect of all those gifts on your child’s future, says co-author Marsha Richins. Spend time with children, and teach them gratitude for all the things they do get.