The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Missouri and the University of Chicago was published in the Journal of Consumer Research. According to Good Housekeeping, the researchers surveyed 701 people, asking various questions about their childhood and their current lives and specifically about the incentives (both rewards and punishments) they received during key points in their childhood. Says Good Housekeeping:
“The results throw a wrench into every well-meaning parent’s best strategies. They found that kids who got material gifts as rewards for good behavior, or just to express Mom and Dad’s love, were more likely to grow up to be materialistic adults, valuing possessions over all else.”
The education researcher Alfie Kohn pointed out, more than 20 years ago, that extrinsic rewards (for anyone, not just children) almost always backfire. Punishment for not achieving an A, or not cleaning up the house, or not visiting your grandmother, elicits temporary compliance—after all, no one wants to be punished. But it’s only temporary. The same goes for rewards: If you get a cookie for memorizing your Spanish vocabulary, you’ll drop the flash cards as soon as the cookie train dries up.
The Good Housekeeping headline is “how to raise a down to earth kid, according to science.” Now “down to earth” is somewhat hard to measure, of course. But every parent wants to raise a kid who values learning—or visiting his grandmother—for its own sake, not as a means to a new Xbox. And by giving consumer goods as rewards, parents also send the message that consumer goods are more valuable than the experience of learning or achieving—an intrinsic reward.
Says study authors Marsha L. Richins and Lan Nguyen Chaplin: “Using material possessions to express love or reward children for their achievements can backfire. Loving and supportive parents can unintentionally foster materialism in their children despite their best efforts to steer them away from relying on material possessions to find happiness or to judge others.”