A photo of a mountain of presents -- 300 in all -- under one family's tree is going viral. The caption of the Instagram photo making its way around the world reads: Nearly time for all the materialistic parents to compete and broadcast how many presents their kids have on Facebook!
While the holidays can certainly feel too materialistic, a recent study suggests it's actually the signals we send our children day-to-day, all year long that matter most.
Sure, you don't spoil your children by going crazy with gifts at the holidays -- but do you buy them a reward when they get a hard-earned A or punish them by taking away a favorite object? New research suggests you may want to rethink those popular parenting strategies.
The study, published this spring in the Journal of Consumer Research, looked at the effects of what the researchers call "material parenting," when parents use goods to express love and shape children's behavior. Researchers surveyed hundreds of adults about their current lifestyle and values, their relationship with their parents, and the rewards and punishments their parents gave them during three stages of childhood, in grades 3, 7, and 10.
They found that adults who received more material rewards as children were more likely to be preoccupied with material possessions and to use them to define who they are. Similarly, the researchers found that punishing a child by taking away a favorite toy may increase the importance of that object and "can lead to an increase in the importance placed on possessions in the future."
"Even with the best intentions, material punishments or rewards should not be your first line of defense as parents," said Marsha Richins, who lead the study, in our interview. Instead of taking away a child's toy or a teen's phone as punishment, try taking away privileges, like not allowing them to go out with friends, said Richins. And for rewards, she said, nothing tops parental praise.
When we teach our kids to equate love with presents and punishment with taking those presents away, we plant seeds of materialism that can grow into big problems as adults. Previous studies have linked materialism to low self-esteem, anxiety, and marital problems in adulthood. Materialistic adults are more likely to be depressed and less likely to be satisfied with their lives.
So, what can parents do to protect children against materialism not just during the holidays but all year long? I reached out to experts for their advice:
Let kids in on marketing secrets. Young children like to be let in on adult secrets. Diffuse the power of ads this holiday season by pointing out the marketing tactics companies use to sell their products, said Nathan Dungan, founder of Share Save Spend, which educates families about money. Ask your kids to find you examples on the TV and in newspapers as well.
Teach healthy spending habits. A study published last year in Motivation and Emotion suggests teaching youth about money can decrease materialism. In one experiment, researchers found that highly materialistic adolescents who were given an intervention, where they were educated about consumerism and taught financial literacy, experienced a decrease in materialism and an increase in self-esteem over several months compared to a control group. "This study shows just how important it is to talk with your kids about your own money choices: what you spend your money on, what you save, and what you give away, so they inherit your values and not those of our consumer culture," said Dungan, who lead the intervention.
Help teens build -- not buy -- identities. Research shows by early adolescence children begin to use material goods as a coping strategy for feelings of insecurity and low self-worth. In researching her book Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture, sociologist Allison Pugh found that the driving pull of materialism in teens was not the 'stuff,' but their longing to connect and fit in with their peers. In my interview with her, Pugh suggested helping your teen build their identity by talking with them often about who they are and what makes them different. "Helping your teen build their own unique narrative," she said, "gives them a coping strategy, something to think about and fall back on when they inevitably don't fit in."
Enlist other parents. Stop keeping up with the Joneses and start teaming up with them. Pugh suggested enlisting other parents in your child's peer group to build a united front against materialism, like making a collective agreement to hold off from, say, ordering the latest electronic gadget.
Practice gratitude. One reason materialistic people are so unhappy is that they often lack gratitude, according to a study published last year in Personality and Individual Differences. Make gratitude a part of your daily family life. Within earshot of your children, thank your wife for running a family errand or your husband for making dinner. Gratitude is not only one of the best vaccine you can give your children against materialism, research shows it's also one of the surest paths to a happier life.