The 3 Parenting Strategies That Cause Kids to Become Materialistic

Tween in a tiara gossiping on phone
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Most households have overflowing closets and overstuffed toy chests filled with hundreds—if not thousands—of dollars’ worth of stuff. And rather than ask for a small toy for a birthday or holiday, many kids are asking for expensive tech gifts.

And while you may have found yourself thinking "enough is enough" when it comes to your kids having too much stuff, pairing down and cutting back isn't always easy.

But giving kids too much stuff isn’t healthy. Kids who are given more than they need are at risk of turning into materialist adults.

Research shows overindulged kids may experience lifelong consequences. They grow up to become dissatisfied and narcissistic adults.

And it’s not just the expensive toys that are causing children to become overindulged. Many of today’s young people are overscheduled and underworked. They have time for basketball practice and piano lessons but they aren’t doing chores.

You might wonder what's wrong with being materialistic. After all, if you can afford brand name clothing or expensive sports gear, you shouldn't you be able to get it?

Well, studies have found materialistic kids often turn out to be materialistic adults. And that can have serious consequences, including more unhappiness during adulthood.

Beliefs that Lead Kids to Become Materialistic

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research discovered that children who became materialistic adopted two main beliefs:

  • Success is defined by the quality and number of material good an individual owns
  • Acquiring certain products makes people more attractive

Of course, most parents don’t instill those beliefs in children on purpose. Instead, children develop those beliefs based on their parents’ parenting style and discipline practices, as well as what’s been role modeled in their home.

Parenting Practices that Promote Materialism

The study found that warm, loving parents often contributed to a materialistic attitude. But, children who grew up in homes where they felt rejected were also likely to be materialistic.

A child who felt his parents were disappointed in him, for example, may seek comfort in his material possessions. Or, a child who doesn’t spend a lot of time with his parents may cope with loneliness by using his toys and electronics.

Researchers found three main parenting practices contribute to materialistic beliefs in children:

  1. Rewarding children for their accomplishments. Paying your child for good grades or promising her a new smartphone if she does well in soccer may teach her that material goods are the ultimate goal.
  2. Giving gifts as a way to show affection. Showering your child with gifts as a token of your love may teach him that being loved means getting presents. 
  3. Punishing children by taking away their possessions. Sending the message that being separated from your belongings is a punishment could teach kids that they need their material possessions to feel good.

How to Decrease Materialism

The good news is, there are some steps you can take to prevent your child from becoming materialistic. You don’t have to deprive your child in order to prevent her from becoming materialistic.

It’s healthy to give your child gifts. But that doesn't mean you have to buy everything on her list or that you have to give her everything she wants.

It’s also a good idea to take away privileges. And sometimes, the most logical consequence may mean taking away your child’s prized possessions, like a smartphone or a bicycle. But it’s important to make sure that it’s not the only negative consequence you ever impose.

Here are a few more steps you can take to buffer a sense of entitlement in today’s world:

  • Foster gratitude. Teaching your child to be grateful for what she has will prevent her from thinking she can’t be happy unless she has more.
  • Focus on quality time. Rather than giving your child gifts, participate in simple activities together. Take a walk, play in the park, or play board games together. Spend more money on experiences, rather than gifts.
  • Role model generosity. Your child will learn a lot more from your actions, rather than your words. Show your child that you’re a kind and giving person who values people over things. Donate to charity, volunteer for an organization, and talk about kindness often.

There will likely be times when your child insists she needs the latest shoes or new high-tech gadget. Say no to her sometimes as a way to teach her the difference between needs and wants.

Praise your child when you catch her being kind or generous. Emphasize the importance of valuing people, rather than things.

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