Watch CBS News

​Raising a generation of materialists

It may be a material world, as Madonna says, but that doesn't mean parents want their kids to grow up to become materialistic.

Unfortunately, loving parents may unwittingly be creating generations of materialists through the time-honored technique of bribing kids for anything from getting an A in math to doing their chores.

Yet using material possessions to express love and support can ultimately lead to those children growing into materialistic adults, whose self-worth is tied to the accumulation of goods, according to recent research published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The study surveyed more than 700 adults for insight into the long-term impact of rewarding kids with material items. It found that those who had received more material rewards and punishments were more likely than others to rely on possessions to define and express who they are.

While that might seem like the American way, given our country's emphasis on luxury cars and big houses as a way to show status and success, materialism has been linked to several negative characteristics that lead to unhappiness, such as financial problems and compulsive shopping.

"If children grow up associating success with material goods, over time, they will focus too much on the end material good to define success and lose sight of the less tangible signs of success such as personal happiness with achieving goals," Lan Nguyen Chaplin, a co-author of the paper and associate professor of marketing at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote to CBS MoneyWatch in an email.

Americans are definitely spending a lot on their kids. Parents are slated to spend more than $245,000 to raise a child born in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's up from about $199,000 in 1980, adjusted for inflation. The biggest areas where parents are spending more are in child care and education, and what the USDA calls "miscellaneous" expenses, which includes entertainment devices such as computers and TVs, as well as books and personal care items.

However, it's not guilty or time-strapped parents who are throwing material goods at their children, the study found.

Loving parents, or those who are warm and supportive, tend to rely on material rewards for their kids, creating a greater chance that those kids will grow up to suffer from materialism, the study found. But conversely, unwittingly generous parents aren't the only problem: Kids threatened with having their possessions taken away are also more likely to be materialistic as adults.

Aside from negative implications for personal finances and self-fulfillment, is there really anything intrinsically bad about materialism? After all, American capitalism is based on the idea of unflagging consumer demand for stuff. While materialistic adults may be helping prop up sales at American stores, they're not necessarily healthy for the environment, the authors noted.

"At the environmental level, materialism is associated with a lower concern for the environment," according to the study, which is co-authored by University of Missouri professor Marsha Richins. "The higher consumption levels of materialistic consumers contribute to greenhouse gas production and climate change, depletion of natural resources, and environmental pollution."

While that's troubling, parents may be left scratching their heads about how to reward good behavior. Chaplin says providing material gifts "in moderation is fine." She added: "It's important for parents to give their children the gift of their time and attention. You can't substitute material goods for your time or attention."

The study also raises some red flags about rewarding kids with intangible experiences, which have been linked to feelings of happiness. While that might seem like a healthy alternative, the paper noted that other research has found the acquisition of experiences (such as a trip to Disneyland) can be just as materialistic as buying toys. The authors said more studies should be undertaken to find out if experiential rewards are less likely to create materialistic adults.

In the meantime, parents may want to rethink how they tell their kids they've done a good job. Instead of buying a toy, they could spend extra play time with their child.

"There are so many ways to define oneself ... we're not just what we have," Chaplin noted. "We're more than that. But if parents always reward/punish kids using material things, then their self-worth, over time, is centered around material goods."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.