How too many gifts can cause kids trouble

"Children who receive many material rewards from their parents will likely continue rewarding themselves with material goods when they are grown—well into adulthood—and this could be problematic," says Marsha Richins. (Credit: Richard Anderson/Flickr)

Parents tempted to buy their kids every gift on their wish list this holiday season should think again.

A new study finds that using material goods as a parenting technique may set children up for trouble when they’re 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—well into adulthood—and this could be problematic,” says Marsha Richins, professor of marketing at University of Missouri.

“Our research highlights the value of examining childhood circumstances and parenting practices to understand consumer behaviors of adults.”

3 misguided strategies

The study, to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research next year, highlights three parenting strategies that can lead to greater materialism:

  • 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.

When parents use material goods in these ways, their children, when grown, are on average more likely to believe that success in life is defined by the quality and number of material goods an individual owns or that acquiring certain products will make them more attractive.


Previous research has shown that adults who define themselves or others by their possessions are at a much higher risk for marital problems, gambling, financial debt, and decreased well-being, Richins says.

Materialism also contributes to environmental degradation due to overconsumption and waste of goods.

“Loving parents tend to provide their children with material rewards,” Richins says. “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.”

Other aspects of parenting also can have an effect on the development of an adult’s attitude toward material goods.

Encourage gratitude

The study shows a relationship between parental rejection and materialism. Children who feel that their parents either don’t have time for them or are disappointed in them are more likely to be materialistic.

Additionally, adults who received both material rewards and material punishments as children are more likely to admire people with expensive possessions.

“It’s okay to want to buy things for your children, but remember to encourage them to be grateful for all the people and things they have in their lives,” says Lan Chaplin, associate professor of marketing at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Business Administration.

“Each time children express their gratitude, they become more aware of how fortunate they are, which paves the way for them to be more generous and less materialistic. Spend time with your children and model warmth, gratitude, and generosity to help curb materialism.”

For the study, Richins and Chaplin surveyed more than 700 adults who were asked to report on a variety of childhood circumstances, their relationship with their parents, and the rewards and punishments they received during three critical stages of childhood.

Source: University of Missouri