How Loving Parents Unwittingly Turn Their Kids Into Materialistic Adults

03/10/2015 04:27 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2015
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Some parents use gifts to reward their children for good behavior. But a new study suggests that doing so could nudge children toward becoming judgmental, materialistic adults.

Parents who reward good behavior with gifts may be unwittingly teaching their children to define success in terms of material possessions, according to findings published last week in the Journal of Consumer Research.

"If parents always reward and punish kids using material things, then they are unintentionally sending the message that self-worth is centered around accumulating material goods," Dr. Lan Chaplin, an associate professor of business at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a co-author of the study, told The Huffington Post in an email.

For the study, Chaplin and her collaborators at the University of Missouri and the University of Illinois surveyed 700 adults, asking about their values and life circumstances, as well as their childhoods, their relationships with their parents and any rewards or punishments they received as children.

What did the researchers find? Adults who had been rewarded with toys and other gifts in childhood tended to reward themselves with material items, and to define and express their self-worth through their possessions. They were also more likely to judge other people based on their possessions.

What should parents do instead? Chaplin advised parents to reward children with their time and attention. When a child finishes a chore, for instance, a big smile and 30 minutes of playtime might be better than money or new toys.

When children are rewarded with attention and positive feedback, rather than material things, "the kids see how their actions can make others happy," Chaplin told HuffPost.

Of course, parents and child psychologists have debated for years about how best to reinforce good behavior and discourage bad behavior in children. While some parents argue that financial rewards are a harmless (if not ideal) way to encourage good behavior, psychologists have warned that giving children "extrinsic" rewards, like gifts or money, tends to backfire. These kinds of rewards can reduce a child's motivation to perform a task -- such as learning or helping out around the house -- for its own sake, according to some psychologists.

After conducting a review of 128 studies on the effects of rewards on children, psychologists concluded in 1999 that extrinsic rewards "significantly undermined free-choice intrinsic motivation" -- meaning that they make it less likely that a child will behave if there's not a reward attached, and they make it less likely that a child will develop a sense of why certain behaviors are "good" in the first place.

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