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Defined By Your Possessions? How Loving Parents Unintentionally Foster Materialism In Their Children

Image: Journal of Consumer Research

Image: Journal of Consumer Research

Can loving and supportive parents unintentionally encourage their children to define their self-worth through possessions? According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, children who receive more material rewards from their parents grow up to be more materialistic as adults.

“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,” write authors Marsha L. Richins, Myron Watkins distinguished professor of marketing in theRobert J. Trulaske, Sr. College of Business at MU and Lan Nguyen Chaplin, associate professor of marketing at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Business Administration.

The authors surveyed 701 adults to measure the long-term impact of material parenting. Study participants described their current life situation and values, and also reported on a variety of childhood circumstances, their relationship with their parents, and the rewards and punishments they received during three critical ages of childhood (at grades 3, 7, and 10).

Richins, who completed the study with Lan Chaplin,  found that three parenting strategies led to greater materialism:

  • Rewarding children with gifts when they have accomplished something, such as making the soccer team or getting straight As.
  • Giving gifts as a way to show affection.
  • Punishing children by taking away their possessions, such as a favorite toy or video game.
Marsha Richins, Myron Watkins distinguished professor of marketing in the Robert J. Trulaske, Sr. College of Business at MU Image: MU

Marsha Richins, Myron Watkins distinguished professor of marketing in the Robert J. Trulaske, Sr. College of Business at MU
Image: MU

Lan Chaplin, associate professor of marketing at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Business Administration Image: MU

Lan Chaplin, associate professor of marketing at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Business Administration
Image: MU

When parents use material goods in these ways, their children, when grown, are on average more likely to believe that success in life is defined by the quality and number of material goods an individual owns or that acquiring certain products will make them more attractive. According to Richins, previous research has shown that adults who define themselves or others by their possessions are at a much higher risk for marital problems, gambling, financial debt and decreased well-being. Materialism also contributes to environmental degradation due to overconsumption and waste of goods.

“Loving parents tend to provide their children with material rewards,” Richins said. “One explanation for the link between material rewards and later materialism is that children who receive these rewards are more likely than others to use possessions to define and enhance themselves, an essential element of materialism.”

Other aspects of parenting also can have an effect on the development of an adult’s attitude toward material goods. For example, the researchers also found that a relationship existed between parental rejection and materialism. Children who felt that their parents either did not have time for them or were disappointed in them were more likely to be materialistic. Additionally, adults who received both material rewards and material punishments as children are more likely to admire people with expensive possessions.

“It’s OK to want to buy things for your children, but remember to encourage them to be grateful for all the people and things they have in their lives,” Chaplin said. “Each time children express their gratitude, they become more aware of how fortunate they are, which paves the way for them to be more generous and less materialistic. Spend time with your children and model warmth, gratitude and generosity to help curb materialism.”

Marsha L. Richins and Lan Nguyen Chaplin. “Material Parenting: How the Use of Goods in Parenting Fosters Materialism in the Next Generation.” Journal of Consumer Research: April 2015.

Courtesy of Journal of Consumer Research and MU News Bureau with special permission from Prof. Marsha Richins

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