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Material Parenting & Childhood Insecurity Lead to Adult Materialism

Many possessions, if they do not make a man better, are at least expected to make his children happier; and this pathetic hope is behind many exertions.
– George Santayana

Adult materialism has been linked to a whole host of characteristics: everything from unhappiness and increased depression and anxiety, to relationship and financial problems, lower self-esteem, reduced empathy, narcissism, racist attitudes and a range of antisocial behaviors.

A virtual laundry list of everything the majority of parents hope to guard their kids against.

Pick one: adolescent & adult materialism vs. well-being

For sake of argument, let’s just say that as a parent you are shooting for what psychologist and author, Tim Kasser calls a ‘socially productive adolescent’. I know I am.

Kasser has long-studied materialism’s impact on well-being. In his book, The High Price of Materialism (2002), he defines said adolescent as someone who does well in school and can hold down a job. She spends time with family and has supportive friends.

Teenagers with higher well-being had hobbies and interests, had a purpose and were actively developing and expanding their minds. They were more physically active and spent more time outdoors.

These teens were more active in their communities and got to adulthood without antisocial or criminal behaviors.

But here’s the catch: these traits and behaviors found in healthy, happy teenagers and future-adults have been found to almost diametrically oppose those found in highly materialistic individuals of all ages.

Materialism and adolescence: not a good look

The consumer obsession with its emphasis on material things, money and status as a way to happiness, is just plain taking up too much space and energy in the lives of many young people.

A childhood is only so long. In this way, materialism is a distraction from the development of important building blocks during the critical developmental time they need to be built.

The future is now. Research with children and teenagers on materialism draw an ominous connection between the over-emphasis placed on material possessions and image and pervasive and lifelong negative effects.

Separate studies of teens and middle school students found that materialism in teens is connected to worse grades and academic achievement, as well as lower reported levels of self-esteem, less happiness and more anxiety and greater distress.

Overall, Kasser found that regardless of socioeconomic status, race or the psychological health of the mother, those teenagers most focused on financial and material success were least likely to be adapting well to society.

Materialism in teens has been associated with all flavors of antisocial behavior including trouble in school, at work or in extracurriculular activities. Its also been linked with other risk behaviors smoking, drinking, fighting and other conduct problems like truancy, vandalizing or carrying weapons. And more sexual behavior.

Research finds that materialism feeds a lack of concern for others, for society and the environment at large. Kasser’s research with teens found his expected results: the more materialistic the teen, the less generous.

He also connected increased generosity to higher levels of self-esteem, more happiness and less problem behaviors, with materialistic children more personally insecure, less happy and increasing derailed by adolescent antisocial behavior.

Materialism and protecting, respecting communal or limited environmental resources don’t mix. The more the materialistic bent, the less pro-social or environmental behaviors follow.

Not exactly what you had in mind for your child’s future?

“It is not the young people that degenerate; they are not spoiled till those of mature age are already sunk into corruption.”
- Baron de Montesquieu

Childhood pathways to adult materialism

Understanding the childhood materialism origin story is a good first step.

Richins and Chaplin (2015) convincingly propose a couple of childhood pathways to adult materialism, connecting parenting style and behaviors as well as childhood circumstances that can over-instill the value in material possessions that last long into adulthood.

One they say, comes from the behaviors associated with material parenting.

A spoiled child is a nuisance, and that's unfortunate, because the child, of course, had no choice in the matter.
- John Rosemond

Material parenting: unconditional gifts

The majority of parents love their children and want to make them happy.

In our consumer culture, that often takes the form of materials gift like video games, expensive trips, electronics, designer clothes and more to show just how much we care.

Whatever a little – and not-so-little, heart desires.

Richins and Chaplin found that the more kids and teens received material gifts from parents unconditionally – just because they wanted them – the more adult materialism. Straight line.

In this way, parental warmth and love shown by way of material gifts can backfire. Beyond that, it’s been shown to conflict with long-term well-being. Picking the former has shown to sacrifice the latter.

Regardless of the motivation behind showering one’s offspring in all the things that make them happy, young people begin to see this as normal and expected.

A habit of acquisition doesn’t automatically end at age 18. What begins as parental warmth can become the barometer of adult happiness but now with grown-up financial implications.

Material parenting: conditional rewards & punishments

Another way parents use material possessions is by using stuff as rewards or punishments as a way to instill values or shape behavior.

Richins and Chaplin (2015) found that parental use of material possessions – whether to reward or punish - predicted adult materialism.

Whether used to as a carrot, to reward good behavior like grades, chores or other accomplishments; or as a stick: to take away things as consequences for poor or irresponsible behavior - both increased the likelihood of being materialistic.

Why the carrot and stick don’t actually work

Studies show that while the carrot might drive short-term behavior modification in order to receive the reward, it will not generate the long-term desired behavioral change because it undermines the internal motivation necessary for any behavior to stick.

Parents need some internal motivation to kick in - in response to all that teaching and nagging. The reward stops that internalization. It says: personal satisfaction is not enough. Wait until you get something before you do something.

Another drawback they found, was future self-rewarding behaviors. Just because the parents may no longer be paying the bills doesn’t mean the programming to treat yourself goes away. Now it just comes with credit card debt.

The researchers connected childhood material rewards to adult materialism. This marrying of acquisition of possessions with accomplishment and success is a key feature of materialism.

Experts say that taking away possessions from kids as a discipline strategy can inflate the importance of those material items being taken away, as well as on possessions generally.

Using material things as currency, turns stuff into …well, currency.

The very thing most parents long to give their kids – a grateful heart – is destroyed in our attempt to simultaneously give them the world.
Kristin Welch

Childhood insecurity & materialism

The second pathway to adult materialism, according to Richins and Chaplin, stems from personal or social childhood insecurity.

They point to a lack of confidence or belief in one’s abilities, low self-esteem and insecurity about social relationships as the foundation from which some young people turn to, and depend on, material possessions to cope.

The admiration and feeling of worth that those material things elicit can temporarily help people feel better about themselves.

Parental rejection & materialism

A child’s sense of security is deeply influenced by a parent’s level of affection.

Studies have shown that as parental warmth increases, a child’s personal security increases and materialism decreases.

Research by Kasser (2002) showed that both a lack of parental warmth as well as rejection by a parent can separately create the personal insecurity that is ripe for adult materialism to take hold.

Even worse Kasser found, is when material parenting meets hardly-parenting.

When material gifts are given as a substitute for a parent’s time or attention, in the absence of love and warmth, the materialistic effects can be even stronger. Here things are without the buffer and protection that parental affection provides.

Childhood social insecurity & materialism

Childhood social instability and feelings of powerlessness can lead to materialistic tendencies as a way to adapt and cope.

Beyond the household, research has also linked adult materialism with negative childhood circumstances including growing up in poverty, in abusive situations or under threat of danger.

Materialism is an identity crisis. – Bryant H. McGill

Materialism and identity creation, self-definition

Ultimately, it’s the impact that material parenting or childhood insecurity can have on a young person’s developing identity that deeply embed materialistic values for a lifetime.

Studies find that children are more likely to have transformation expectations and believe that buying things can lead to being more attractive, being more confident and achieving greater respect.

They also tend to see material possessions as an important part of defining who they are, how they express and enhance themselves, and who they want to be.

Once developed, identity-expression by way of things can become a hard and expensive adult habit to break.

The nightmare of materialism, which has turned the life of the universe into an evil, useless game, is not yet past; it holds the awakening soul still in its grip.
Wassily Kandinsky


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