Study Links Parenting and Materialism in Kids

A new study from the University of Missouri-Columbia pinpointed some parenting tactics that make kids more materialistic.

What the study found is sort of common sense, but it highlights a set of parenting tactics that are doing our kids a disservice. The authors found that using material goods as punishments, rewards, or to show affection causes kids to be more materialistic. Study author Marsha Richins summed it by explaining that when we use material goods in this way, “our kids are more likely to judge their own success and the success of other people in their lives by the kinds of possessions that they own.”

Related: The Most Important Parenting Lesson I’ve Learned So Far

Kids raised this way are more likely to use material goods to reward themselves throughout their lives, and that tendency can impact their happiness and future relationships.

The study authors call this tactic Material Parenting, and Richins explains why raising a materialistic kid is less than ideal. These kids tend to grow up to have more debt, and they tend to have more fights with their eventual spouses about money. They’re also at a higher risk for gambling problems.

So, what’s the alternative? So many of us grew up with material goods as punishments or rewards, right? Shying away from this habit might not be easy at first.

The study authors say that you don’t have to completely stop showing your love with gifts, but it should be an occasional thing. Richa says “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.” She says that when we focus more on spending time together and less on stuff we raise happy, secure kids who don’t need material things to feel fulfilled.

As a mom I am hyper-aware of the urge to shower my kid with gifts. If that’s how you learned to show love and affection, it’s natural that you’d use the same tactic with your kids that your parents used with you. Reading this research got me thinking about alternatives to using material goods as rewards or as punishments. Let’s talk ideas!

How can we as parents buck the materialist trend and shower our kids with love? The authors suggest using time and attention as a reward. For younger kids I could see a trip to a favorite playground or a living room dance party as a good reward. It might be trickier with older kids, especially if they’re used to material rewards. I’d love to hear from parents of older children on this one!

Punishments seem a little bit trickier, so I did a little bit of research. This article from Empowering Parents was very interesting. It’s a response to one parent who’s child doesn’t respond to material punishments, and I think that there are some solid tips in there for any parent who wants to punish without relying solely on material things.

photo credit: Rob, Joyce, Alex & Nova via photopin cc


Mark Bill
Past Member 4 years ago

Hmm your post is lush; this will surely help the newbie to know about that.

Debbi W.
Debbi -4 years ago

Our sons learned that doing well was its own reward. Our younger son had a horrible year in 6th grade (his teacher's personality changed for the worse following brain surgery; her replacement, a 30 something, died after two months, & the next replacement had no empathy for what the class had gone through). In April he vehement about quitting school so I brought home a kitten and told him the kitten needed a friend because he had been alone in a cage. It worked out well. Our son had someone to talk with while he was falling asleep. He felt good about helping the kitten.

Monica Buchanan
Monica Buchanan4 years ago


Steve McCrea
Steve McCrea4 years ago

We used both time and low-cost tangible rewards to help our very active kids learn to behave appropriately, and none of them has grown up to be particularly materialistic. I think it's more complex than the study shows - my guess would be that homes using big financial rewards and punishments that were also short on attention led to these outcomes. We were always on a tight budget and our kids learned early how to shop for the best bargains and also learned that money is earned by doing a good job (they got no allowances but were paid a set amount for a range of chores around the house). They also saw parents who were not materialistic and got lots of verbal and nonverbal messages that greed is bad and the charity is good.

I very much doubt that small material rewards have much effect on a person's level of materialism, at least when other forms of attention are readily available from the child's caretakers.

---- Steve

Sara G.
Sara Away4 years ago

Duh....It took a study to figure this out?

greenplanet e.
greenplanet e4 years ago

We don't need too much stuff, really.

Elena Poensgen
Elena Poensgen4 years ago

Thank you

Rose Roma
R. R4 years ago

Obviously agreed. However, the lead into future gambling problems? Not necessarily. That particular problem, just like hoarding, has different root causes.

Giovanna M.
Giovanna M4 years ago

I understand that when inside a specific situation, it may be hard to see how rewarding or punishing through material stuff may cause the person being punished/rewarded to associate any reward/punishment state with material things.

But, really, did an observer need this study to deduce that? I thought Pavlov (to name one) had already done a good job establishing how these sorts of associative identifications work. I also thought anyone who has studied dysfunctional families had a good idea of how these things happen too (and some of these studies already focused on rewards/punishments with material things instead of providing emotional rewards).
Today must be the day of publishing studies of evident and already known facts on Care2. Either that, or there are too many people out there calling their not too revealing work "discoveries". I do hope at least these "discoveries" help millions of psychologists and coaches out there telling you to reward yourself with doing or getting yourself something you like. It´s hard not to raise materialistic children when the parents are constantly bombarded undercover but ultimately egotistic and materialistic -and not too realistic- tips.