"We're living in a material world," the entertainer Madonna sang in 1984, "and I am a material girl." We are all material, in that our bodies are mostly made of physical elements--mainly carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. We need material things--food, clothes, shelter--to survive. Madonna wasn't just singing about being made of matter, though; she was singing about materialism. Are you a materialist? In other words, do you put a high value on accumulating possessions and believe that having the right possessions will make you happy?
Many of us are a little uneasy when others praise materialism. If we look around at our possessions, though, we may recall that some of them were acquired when, for the moment at least, we were acting materialistically. The house we live in, the car we drive, the clothes we wear, the electronics we use, the furnishings that surround us--it's quite possible that we purchased at least some of these things not purely out of need but in order to enhance our self-esteem or to make ourselves happier. Materialism may satisfy for a moment but it is an unsatisfying way to live, and material parenting is a flawed way to raise children.
So think about something you bought because you thought it would increase your happiness. You may have had a surge of pride or excitement right after making the purchase. How long did that feeling last, though? Research studies have found that new possessions produce only a very brief increase in happiness. Most of the things that make most of us happiest don't entail money or possessions. Even when it comes to spending money, there are better ways to increase happiness than to acquire more stuff. Money spent in order to make more time for oneself, to improve health, or to increase knowledge produces more lasting increases in happiness that does money spent on possessions. Materialism has other negative effects. Adults who place a high value on acquiring material goods are more likely to be in debt and have more risk for marital difficulties or gambling problems. "Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions," said Jesus (Mark 12:15). Abundant possessions also fail to foster well-being.
Given the difficulties with materialism, it is not surprising that material parenting--parenting that teaches children to place a high value on possessions or that relies heavily on material rewards and punishments--also has negative effects. Research has found that giving material rewards decreases children's intrinsic motivation. A child is intrinsically motivated if he or she enjoys doing something for its own sake--reading, for example, or working hard to get a good grade on a school project. Children given tangible rewards for participating in what should be an inherently satisfying activity will often stop doing the activity unless the external rewards continue. They lose interest in the satisfactions they once found in the activity itself.
There are other problems with material parenting. Researchers recently looked at the long-term effects of using material goods to reward or punish children. More than 700 adults were surveyed concerning the rewards or punishments they remembered receiving during childhood. Some of the adults had received parenting that focused heavily on the material--their parents frequently used physical objects to reward, took away possessions to punish, and expressed affection by giving gifts. These adults were more likely than the other adults surveyed to believe that success in life is defined by the quality and number of one's possessions. They also are prone to believe that individuals who possess or use certain products are more attractive than those who don't have them. Thus, these materially rewarded children eventually became materialistic adults.
Masha Richens, one of the authors of this study, was asked by a reporter for the New York Times what alternatives are preferable to material rewards. She suggested "time, attention, and communication." In other words, we can reward children by spending extra time with them, by paying particular attention to their good behavior, and by expressing our approval for what they've done.
Such alternatives require more effort. Parents who are themselves materialistic may be so engrossed in making money that they don't want the additional burden that providing time, attention, and communication would require. But their hesitancy reveals where their hearts truly are--not with their children, but with their things. Isn't it worth putting forth extra effort in order to impart good values to our children? Materialism is an unsatisfying way to live, and material parenting is a flawed way to raise children.