Don’t Give Your Kids Gifts to Show Affection

Setting up a connection between things and reward early in life primes people to be materialistic

kids and gifts
JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images/Corbis

The holidays are prime time to roll out complaints about materialism taking over our society. If you’re looking for ammunition for your rants, science has got your back: A new study says that rewarding children with gifts can set them up to crave material goods, according to Treehugger.

After surveying 700 adults, researchers from the University of Missouri and the University of Illinois at Chicago drew connections between gift-giving patterns and materialism. “Loving parents tend to provide their children with material rewards,” Marsha Richins, a marketing professor at MU and the study author, says in a statement. “One explanation for the link between material rewards and later materialism is that children who receive these rewards are more likely than others to use possessions to define and enhance themselves, an essential element of materialism.”

There are three problem patterns described in the work, which was published in the Journal of Consumer Research. According to the statement, they are:

  • Rewarding children with gifts when they have accomplished something, such as making the soccer team or getting straight As.
  • Giving gifts as a way to show affection.
  • Punishing children by taking away their possessions, such as a favorite toy or video game.

Previous work shows not only does being materialistic lead to marital problems, gambling and debt, but buying new stuff doesn’t actually make us happy. To break the cycle before it starts, you don’t need to cut off the gifts altogether: It’s the association between reward and gifts that needs to stop. The researchers suggest that parents should encourage their kids to recognize how fortunate they are to receive gifts. "Spend time with your children and model warmth, gratitude and generosity to help curb materialism," says marketing professor Lan Chaplin of the University of Illinois.

So don’t send away unopened presents yet, just make sure you give them in the right context.

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