Mind & Body

There's an Easy Way to Avoid Raising Materialistic Kids

Kids can become very fixated on stuff. Hot new gadgets, designer jeans, the $500 slippers everyone else at their private school has. This is often just a phase — but sometimes it can blossom into a lack of generosity and lifelong mental health issues. So how can parents make sure it doesn't last?

An Experiment With Gratitude Journals

In a 2018 study in The Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers unearthed at least one effective tool for keeping materialism at bay: gratitude. In their two-part study, they found that adolescents with "grateful disposition[s]" were less likely to be materialistic. They also found that keeping a daily gratitude journal for two weeks reduced teens' materialism and made them more generous with their money.

The first part of this study was a straightforward survey of 870 adolescents, ages 11–17. The survey consisted of 14 statements about material things and thankfulness, which respondents rated on a scale from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree." Statements included "When I grow up, the more money I have, the happier I'll be," and "It's easy to think of things to be thankful for." The results showed a robust negative correlation between materialism and gratitude.

The second part of the study went further. The 61 participants — again, all adolescents — began by taking the survey from the first part of the study. Then, half of them kept a gratitude journal, where they wrote down who and what they were thankful for; as a control, the other half kept a daily journal with no particular theme. After two weeks of journaling, participants all retook the gratitude-materialism survey. Initially, the two groups of journalers had comparable scores, but after the journaling experiment, those who kept gratitude journals were more grateful and less materialistic.

This group was also more generous than the control group. When the study ended, each participant was given 10 one-dollar bills. A researcher told the group that they could all either keep the money or donate any amount of it by dropping it in a lockbox. The adolescents who kept gratitude journals donated 60 percent more than their peers.

Why Giving Thanks Matters

It might sound intuitive that gratitude journaling boosts ... gratitude. The results of this study are more exciting than they might sound, though, because they also establish a causal link between gratitude journaling and a decrease in materialism.

Experts are always looking for ways to quash materialism. It's been on the rise in the U.S. for generations, and it's been linked with many health issues, including anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Historically, academics have argued that materialism has its roots in marketing messages and that the way to curb it is to more tightly regulate advertising. It's hard to implement a structural change like that, though. Gratitude journaling, on the other hand, is easy (and free!). It also works on the demographic most susceptible to materialism's siren song: adolescents. Materialism and insecurity often go hand in hand, and there's no more insecure time than middle and high school. (In fact, middle school is the time when the typical kid is at their most materialistic.)

Which is all to say that focusing on gratitude could be a powerful parenting hack in our materialistic culture. And there's no reason it has to be just for kids. Adults can start gratitude journals, too! YOLO.

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Need some help? The Five-Minute Journal comes with gratitude prompts to get you started on counting your blessings and thinking about the best parts of your day. We handpick book recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice November 20, 2018

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