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Rewarding kids with material things can backfire

Kelly Dilworth

The next time you reward your kids for good behavior, you might want to hold off on showering them with toys. According to a forthcoming study in the Journal of Consumer Research, kids who are frequently given material objects in exchange for doing well are more likely to grow up to be materialistic adults.

“Our research suggests that children who receive many material rewards from their parents will likely continue rewarding themselves with material goods when they are grown,” said study co-author Marsha L. Richins in a news release.

That, in turn, can lead to an assortment of problems later on, says Richins, such as chronic overspending.

Rewarding kids with material 'things' could backfire

“We find that materialistic people have more debt — more credit card debt and other kinds of debt,” said Richins in an interview with the University of Missouri, where she teaches consumer behavior. Materialistic people are also “more likely to have discord with their spouses — often times about money matters,” she says, and they are more likely to gamble and compulsively shop.

In the study, Richins and co-author Lan Chaplin of the University of Illinois theorize that when kids are frequently rewarded with material objects, they tend to develop an unhealthy attitude toward things and overvalue their importance. In some cases, they might even measure their self-worth based on what they own.

For example, some kids learn to conflate material goods with achievement — particularly if their parents routinely give them gadgets in exchange for earning good grades or doing well in sports. “Children whose accomplishments are rewarded with desirable material goods will come to associate acquisition and ownership of desirable goods with accomplishment and success,” write Richins and Chaplin in the report.

Others learn to lean on material goods for emotional support — especially if their parents try to make up for their physical or emotional absence by giving them more stuff. “Parents send children both implicit and explicit messages with their disciplinary and reward practices,” add Richins and Chaplin. “Children interpret these messages, and over time come to internalize them.”

In addition, some kids who are surrounded by things tend to shape their self-perception around what they acquire, and use material goods to express themselves to others. For example, teenagers with a closet full of clothes might use fashion to express their creativity or align themselves with a specific group or social movement. Or they might associate acquiring new things with creating a more fulfilling way of life.

The study authors came to their conclusions after questioning more than 700 adults about their childhoods and comparing the results to questionnaires assessing the participants’ current levels of materialism. Participants who frequently received material rewards as children tended to be significantly more materialistic as adults.

Your bottom line
Think twice before you reward your kids with brand-new objects. You may feel as if you’re showing your love by providing them with the latest gadget or fashionable accessory, but you could be inadvertently sending them the wrong message.

“A lot of times we want to give them things. And that may be a great way to show your love, on occasion,” said Richins in an interview with the University of Missouri. “The best gift you can give your child is the gift of your time and the gift of your love and the gift of your attention. And these things create a sense of security in a child, which reduces the need to rely on material goods to create happiness or to feel good about yourself.”

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  • Caleb

    This is a very interesting study. It can be hard not to reward good behavior with something they might want. But rewarding them with positive comments or maybe something else might be more effective in the long run. A very interesting subject and would love to read more, especially since I have a 2 year old.