This episode on the topic of materialism concludes our series on the intersection of parenting and money. Here we talk with Dr. Susanna Opree of Erasmus University Rotterdam, who studies the effect of advertising and commercial media on use, materialism, and well-being.
We discuss how children’s understanding of materialism shifts as they age, the extent to which advertising contributes to materialism, and the specific role that parents play in passing on this value.
Other episodes in this series:
Click here to read the full transcript
Dr. Opree 00:00
Basically, if you want to reduce materialism, you need to make sure that’s those human connections. And those other values such as generosity, that they are amplified. And so I think what works best if Why do you see young kids to invest in their self-esteem a little bit as well also for adolescence, but I think also teaching young people to be grateful to be grateful ourselves as well for all the things that we have. And really just focus on making those connections. And the tricky thing is that sometimes possessions enable these connections. But I think if we’re more focused on what’s intrinsic to us, what makes us happy, outside of possessions that then basically the emphasis will shift.
Hi, I’m Jen and I host the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We all want our children to lead fulfilling lives, but it can be so hard to keep up with the latest scientific research on child development and figure out whether and how to incorporate it into our own approach to parenting. Here at Your Parenting Mojo, I do the work for you by critically examining strategies and tools related to parenting and child development that are grounded in scientific research and principles of respectful parenting. If you’d like to be notified when new episodes are released and get a FREE Guide to 7 Parenting Myths That We Can Safely Leave Behind, seven fewer things to worry about, subscribe to the show at yourparentingmojo.com. You can also continue the conversation about the show with other listeners in the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group. I do hope you’ll join us Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. And today’s episode we’re going to bring our series on the intersection of children and money to a conclusion we started out so long ago by talking with New York Times money columnist Ron Lieber about his book The Opposite of Spoiled. More recently we heard from Dr. Brad Klontz, about how we pass on money scripts to our children. And then we talked with Dr. Allison Pugh about the meaning children make out of the messages they receive about material goods. And then Dr. Esther Rozendaal on how children’s brains process advertising. And in between we looked at what research there is on how to set up a playroom, which has of course many links with the items that we buy and use. And so finally, we’re here today with Dr. Suzanna Opree to bring the discussion up to a level that kind of draws all this together as we try and understand what materialism is, and how we pass it on to our children and what we can do if we don’t want our children to be very materialistic. Dr. Opree is Senior Assistant Professor of quantitative methods in the department of Media and Communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her research focuses on the effect of advertising and commercial media on use, materialism, and well-being. Welcome Dr. Opree!
Dr. Opree 03:00
Thank you for having me.
Okay, so I wonder if we could start with something that seems as though it should be kind of simple. And then it turned out that it wasn’t. Can you define materialism for us? Because I would, as I was reading through the literature, I found at least six different definitions of it.
Dr. Opree 03:15
Yeah, there are indeed many definitions. Luckily, though, some scholars have already tried to make sense of all those different definitions. And so I myself always go by the work of Richins and Dawson, and they say that materialism is basically three things. So first, it’s finding possessions important and just wanting to collect as many possessions as you can. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that you actually think that these possessions will make you happier, and not only in the short term, but also in the long run. And so that’s basically one of the motivators for actually collecting possessions. And then the third one has to do more with impression management, so to say. So it’s that you want to have possessions for adults to basically impress all the others around you. So think of having a big house, having a big car. As for children, and it’s that, so getting items that will make you popular among your peers, but also just the belonging and fitting in, which I know you talked about earlier in the podcast series as well. That’s important for children as well.
Yeah, yeah, that definitely came out in our episode with Dr. Pugh. So, um, so I’m glad that you are using one of the definitions that I had found instead of springing a new one on me. And so I’m curious as to how you landed on that one instead of some of the others that I mean, one of them says that materialism is a personality trait. Other people think it’s a feature of people’s identities or a set of attitudes about money and wealth. What is it about this particular definition that speaks to you more than some of the others?
Dr. Opree 04:53
Well, I think it also captures the first two that you’re referring to. So when we talk about it as a personality traits I do think materialism is something that’s inherent or characters and all of us are materialistic to some extent or another. However, in that research, it’s often combined with other character traits. So they talk that materialism is paired with possessiveness, for instance, and non-generosity, envy. And I don’t think all naturalistic kids or people actually have these personality traits, but we use possessions as part of our identity. So I do think that part is true, especially in a consumer culture that we have today. Basically, anything you own is a choice. So back in the day, like to my students I always compare it to buying a car. A couple of decades ago, there was one car that you could buy like the Model-T Ford was the only one made available and it had just one color and that was it. Whereas if you go buy a car today, there are so many different each brand has so many different models and so many different colors or color combinations. And that whatever you choose then becomes a signaling of your identity, so to say.
Yeah, and I think that’s particularly, it’s interesting that you brought up the example of cars. I was just talking about this the other day, about how so many cars are essentially the same car with the same chassis, the same engine with a different, you know, wrapper on the outside. Yes, designed to appeal to some particular aspect of our taste. So yeah, and so I’m always trying to look back to previous episodes, and we did one recently on the topic of patriarchy and I was really interested to draw a connection between some research on that and something that I pulled out of the literature on materialism because one of the authors I was reading had argued that materialism and consumerism have feminizing effects on men. And I’m going to quote this by setting up a narrative linking identity or sorry, linking masculinity, rebellion and integrity on one side and femininity, conformity, domestication and commercialization on the other. Production is active while consumption is passive. The consumer is deceived by advertising into purchasing things she doesn’t really need, and this femininity is contagious. So men might also find themselves subject to the hypnoidal trance. I mean, what do you make of that? I am trying to square that with the research that says that men are actually slightly more materialistic than women I think.
Dr. Opree 07:25
They are. Yeah, yeah. For me, it was a very interesting point of view, actually a new one for me. So if I actually look at the literature. So Tim Kasser, for instance, has a yeah has worked on the topic of materialism for many years, as well. And he also studies, he linked it to capitalism, basically. And he, I believe, last year also released a book called Hyper-Capitalism, which is great. It’s actually a comic book telling you everything about materialism or what you need to know. But what he also explains there, is that he links it to capitalism, but he’s saying so materialism often has is occurring in capitalist societies where there’s also a huge emphasis on a succession of our success and ambition, of status, wealth. And that’s actually if we look at intercultural research, those kinds of societies are actually classified as being more masculine. So there is more emphasis on being the best, so to say then taking care of each other. And so we also see that in countries where actually there is less capitalism and less materialism, that there is, for instance, yeah, more emphasis on values such as harmony and equality, social justice, so this part about how materialism could be. Yeah. How did you call it? Feminizing?
Dr. Opree 08:52
To me, that’s an interesting point of view that I will definitely explore further, but that I wasn’t familiar with.
Yeah, it almost seems as though the men are looking to the, I mean, it’s sort of a cycle that men are advertising to the women who of course most advertising agencies are mostly run by men and are predominantly populated by men, and so they’re creating these advertisements for women and saying, well, you’re listening to this stuff and, and you’re being hypnotized by it and your feminizing us. There was some kind of strange circular logic in it to me as well. So, okay, that brings us to the question of why do we care about materialism? Why does it matter? So let’s start with how materialism is linked to well-being what do you see there?
Dr. Opree 09:32
Yeah, so there’s actually an interesting link. So in my research has always distinguished well-being from life satisfaction, which are two different things. So well-being are basically all the conditions that needs to be met in order for you to become a happy individual. And what we see in research among adults is that adults who are more materialistic, they become less satisfied with their lives over time and it also works the other way around. So if as an adult, you’re less satisfied, then you’ll also grow to become more materialistic, as a sort of coping mechanism. And we observe this coping mechanism in children as well. So we see that if children are unhappy that then they are more materialistic. They’re also more susceptible to the effects of advertising, but not the other way around. So if they’re materialistic, as kids, they will not become less satisfied.
All right. So let’s dig into that a little bit. Then. What specifically do you find, I guess I’m not sure if this research has been done on children, but are there links between I guess its well-being as you’re defining it rather than life satisfaction and materialism? Do we see a lot of negative impacts there? Or are there some positive ones as well, maybe?
Dr. Opree 10:49
Well, actually, that’s still partly to be explored. So we aren’t too sure yet how that works together. But we do see that that link between materialism and life satisfaction.
Yeah, I was thinking about research on things like depression, and anxiety, and narcissism, and substance abuse.
Dr. Opree 11:07
Well, there’s research on that. Yeah. Okay, that’s and a very specific form of people’s mental well-being basically. That if you look at research on self-esteem, for instance, then we do see that youth or adults with less self-esteem, they become more materialistic as well. Similarly, in my own research, I also found that children who experience a big life events, so this could be moving to a new town, but it could also be experiencing someone getting sick in their families, for instance, and then they become more materialistic as well. So for kids, as somehow these possessions seem like a way out in order to feel better.
Yeah, and just thinking about the literature on divorce on that as well because I know there’s research on divorce and materialism. I’m not sure the extent to which the parents drive this by seeing that the child’s unhappy and buying them things as a tool to kind of express, you know, I still love you even though we’re not together. And do you think that there is an element of the parents are driving this or it does it come from the children who are looking to possessions where they feel as though something is missing from other aspects of their life? Or is it kind of a circular process again, there?
Dr. Opree 12:26
Yeah, well, so one of those life events is also divorce. So we also included that in our research, and then again, we did see that the children whose parents were divorced, that indeed, they would become more materialistic as well. Part of it is compensation. I think, also because if you’re spending less time with your kids, sometimes that is the outcome of divorce as well. You may want to compensate a little bit for your absence. And to a certain extent, like I wouldn’t say that that’s all that. I just think you need to be aware of the kind of message that you’re giving out and also the kind of message you give out while doing so. So it’s okay for instance, if you want to create a new bedroom in your house, if you want your kids to feel safe and secure in a new home, then yeah, I don’t see the harm in getting them new possessions.
Okay. And then sort of heading back up to the broader theme, I was really interested to see that materialistic values are associated with making more anti-social and self-centered decisions. And some people had done some fascinating studies on things like changing price tags on merchandising, I think this was a survey where they asked people if they’d ever done this or knowingly used an expired coupon which gosh, I’ve done behaving in less pro social and more selfish ways. What links do you see there?
Dr. Opree 13:50
Yeah, with that type of research, I always wonder myself, is it then materialism or maybe a personality trait that is related to materialism. So in my own research within adolescence, we saw that adolescent kids who are more materialistic, tend to be more narcissistic and entitled as well. And so, especially imagine that something like entitlement would perhaps make a bigger difference there than materialism. So if you change the price tag, if you want to get it cheaper, it’s probably because you feel like that’s the price that’s right for you or that you’re sort of justifying it maybe in that way. So I think it’s it has to do with something linked to materialism rather than materialism itself.
Yeah. And of course, that gets to the point of correlation rather than causation, doesn’t it? The research shows that and I had written down materialistic values are associated with making more of these decisions. And because if we if we just sort of do a survey, we’re finding that these two things vary together, but we can’t say that it’s the materialism that’s causing the unethical behavior, and it could, in fact be other things that the researchers weren’t even looking at. So, yeah, yeah. Okay, so that’s sort of a fair bit on the personal stuff. And of course, there are other reasons as well related to the environment. And the amount of waste that it produces, which we don’t ever really see, you know, when we throw our device away, or whatever, I think is a way we’re throwing away a small fraction of the complete amount of waste that was created in the lifecycle of the product. What do you see about how people who have materialistic values view nature and see these circumstances?
Dr. Opree 15:37
Yeah, well, I think this partly has to do with consumer culture as well. So in a sense that if we look at the way our countries have changed over the years, and also how production processes have changed, so I myself, for instance, I grew up in a small town, and we had a big agricultural sector and there was a lot of these greenhouses as well. So there was actually produce being grown nearby. But if you go there now it’s all suburbs like all these fields are gone. And so even though we grew up, like seeing what’s happening, really knowing where produce come from, I can imagine the same like if you grow up near farms if you see animals being raised, and then the connection to nature is, of course, closer than if you live somewhere where you never observe it. And the tricky thing with the waste is that of course, we ourselves we create waste. Unfortunately, in our homes, not all foods get eaten, or indeed, we get rid of machines as well, that may be could’ve still been fixed, but it’s easier just to replace it with something new that will work immediately, so to say. On the one hand is actually also part of the production process. So as I said, we’re further away from it. But with all the produce for instance, we don’t see the process before the store and so we’re creating waste ourselves but actually the industry is also creating waste. So we have certain standards for what fruit and vegetables should look like, for instance, and anything that doesn’t meet the criteria and will be cut from the process and will not make it to the stores. And so there’s also ways in different parts of the process that I think can be handled as well. So that’s one thing. And then on a more individual level. Yeah, it’s tricky that we tend to replace things sooner than we used to.
Mm hmm. Yeah. And I had read the individuals who are focused on more materialistic values really have more of a negative attitude towards the environment. Do you think that it’s just that they don’t think about it as much or they think about it and they don’t care or what do you think’s driving that?
Dr. Opree 17:52
Maybe a little bit convenience, but they prioritize their own goals over the common ones. So we do see that in materialistic societies, there’s more emphasis on the individual. So you want to drive your car and not think about the emissions that it’s causing, or you want to book that flight or so that could be one thing. I think it’s more a societal problem than an individual problem, though.
Okay. All right. And so children, when they’re born, tend not to have so much desire for products. So I’m curious about how this develops, you know, how does children’s understanding of these issues shift as they get older?
Dr. Opree 18:32
Yeah, well, the good thing is, is also with the environmental issues, like you can still teach children a lot of things. If we just teach the current generation, well, then maybe they’ll behave better than we are doing right now. Kids do yeah, of course, when they’re very little like they can even be entertained with very little, doesn’t have to be the most impressive toy ever as long as they can play with it. Touch it. Maybe smell it or like then, then it’s fine. But the more again, older they become, the more choice they get, of course. And there’s also this part where they at one point start to realize all the things that they can ask for their birthdays. So the first birthday, like they’re completely unaware that it is their birthday. But then the older they get, it really becomes this big event that they’re living towards. And the same thing with Christmas, like it suddenly becomes this big thing.
Gosh, do you have young children by any chance?
Dr. Opree 19:31
No, I do have to small…
It sounds as though you’ve lived this many times.
Dr. Opree 19:37
No, I see it a little bit through my own family.
Yeah, I can imagine and they start to recognize brands as well, right?
Dr. Opree 19:44
Yeah, very early. So most four-year olds would already know McDonald’s for instance, they just need to see the big yellow M and then they already know what time it is basically.
Yeah, my daughter’s actually confused between McDonald’s and In-N-Out, I think because they’re both yellow, which was possibly a tactical mistake on somebody’s part. But yeah, she isn’t quite got the shape yet, but she knows the yellow. And so this is sort of very young children and then over time it moves from recognition of brands to the realization that some brands are cool and other brands are not cool. And how does that happen?
Dr. Opree 20:23
Yeah, that doesn’t happen like somewhere during primary school. So I think part of it is already in younger children as well. So I must say my niece who’s four years old, and she already has clear preferences as well which articles are really dictated by the kind of shows she’s watching on television. So here Paw Patrol, for instance, is a big thing. And so then she wants all things from Paw Patrol or and before this, it was Frozen. There is this and all the kids around her are having the same things as well. So we do already see that even at that age like they have common preferences so to say, but it’s more driven still by with what they find fun themselves. And it isn’t until later. So actually, in the literature, It’s often said around the age of eight where children start to realize that brands or products cannot only have a function for them personally, but that they can also signal something else to the others. And so this sense of belonging as well that you need to have these things in order to fit in, starts to develop around that same age.
And Gosh, where did that come from? I mean, I’m just thinking back 100 years, 200 years, where did this idea that you have to have a certain logo on your shoes to fit in come from?
Dr. Opree 21:47
And yeah, good question. Maybe a little bit consumer culture as well, but it’s become more important because you have again, this potential to differentiation so that it is easier to recognize an in group and out group and that you want to be part of the in group. That because brands have become more important over time, that probably is the same for kids that then it became a bigger thing for them as well.
So as products get more differentiated, they become more used as a signal of who’s in and who’s out. Yeah, yeah. Okay. And so we spent a whole episode talking about advertising. And we talked a little bit about brands here. But these values are related to materialism are also passed on from parents to children as well. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Dr. Opree 22:32
Yeah. So actually, I think that’s good news, especially after I listened to your previous podcast that you and parents still have the biggest influence. So yes, the media has an influence as well, advertising has an influence. But if and this is something that I would do in my studies as well, so if I look at what predicts children’s materialism, if possible, if I have access to the parents, I can also ask them for their level of materialism. And we see that that The biggest predictor. So it’s really the kind of values you have yourself. That’s what you’re passing on. So if you’re worried that your children might become too materialistic, then then try to think of, yeah, really the kind of values that you find important that are less focused on possessions or products or brands, and try to reinforce those more.
Yeah. And it was I was actually doing some thinking on this over the weekend, as well, and how values are defined. And even the way that somebody who says that they’re family oriented is one of their primary values. And that can be expressed in different ways, too. I mean, what we could do is if we’re saying family is most important to me, that could mean I’m going to spend as much time as possible with my kids. Or it could also mean I’m going to give my children every advantage that I can and that means I need to work really hard and I’m going to buy them a lot of stuff and make sure they get into the best schools and so on. So even though we might say family is our most important value, there are so many different ways that that that can actually be expressed in the children’s experience of it. That could go more or less materialistic.
Dr. Opree 24:05
Yeah, definitely. Yeah.
Yeah. And so I think has also been linked to parenting styles as well, isn’t there? Wasn’t there some research about mothers who were cold and controlling and children focusing on sort of attaining a sense of security through external sources like financial success?
Dr. Opree 24:24
Yeah, there’s several studies similar to that one out there. And I think what mainly we need to take from these studies because they’re awfully specific, but that’s basically children thrive best under a nurturing environment, they do want to experience the warmth. And that’s also way more predictable their life satisfaction than materialism. So the fact that we did not find this effect of materialism on children’s life satisfaction, is also we’ve explained that by the fact that a lot of children thankfully, have a buffer basically they are from nice families they have a warm home to go to. And that in the end is what determines their happiness most.
Okay, all right, that’s really helpful. And then just to dig a little further into a couple of things related to that there was a study that looked at providing conditional and unconditional material rewards even when the children were young. And so this is the idea of, you know, if you do this, you can have a candy or I also use them as punishments. If you don’t do this, I’m going to take your toy away, tended to value goods as an indicator of success when they were adults. So there again, this is a correlational result only not we can’t say that one causes the other. But that has a lot of links to work that we’ve looked at on rewards and whether rewards are effective at motivating people. And yes, they can indeed be very effective for changing short term behavior, but even beyond the idea of changing short term behavior seems as though they have much broader reaching implications than we might ever have thought.
Dr. Opree 25:54
Yeah, I’m not saying an issue with it kind of research, even though I think there is some merit to it, but I think we should be careful interpreting retrospective research. So if we ask adults today what they remember about their childhoods, because if you are materialistic as an adult, then if you think about your past, then you’re probably more trying to think about possessions as well and the things you did or didn’t have when growing up. Whereas if you’re less focused on possessions, then you’re less likely to call those out first. So that could be something that really people reflect on their lives based on the values they have today. But then still, yeah, we do see that possessions are used as rewards. We also suggest with good report cards, for instance, that you get a little bit of money from your grandparents or, and again, it’s the same with materialism itself. I think, like we’re all materialistic to some extent, and it’s not necessarily bad because it does make us strive for certain goals and trying to set and reach them. And so I also think it’s okay to give little rewards every now and then to say that you’re proud as long as it’s kept within certain limits. And that you’re really praising the child, for instance, for their perseverance at it, you’re really labelling the positive aspect that you want to reward versus just getting something. So reading again, the message, and taking things away is always tricky, because that’s what we see. Also in research when it comes to children and media, as soon as you’re saying that they cannot watch something, it becomes this forbidden fruit, which they then become obsessed with. And so that’s the same if you take one of their favorite toys away or their video console or like, then they will get obsessed with that, because that’s on their mind. That’s the thing that they want to get back.
Uh huh. Yeah. And that also fits so well with the research on children’s eating habits. And if you make vegetables into what researchers call, sort of a gateway food to getting the food that they really want, like a dessert then it doesn’t make them like vegetables any more, and it just makes them want the dessert more. Which is probably of the opposite of what the parent was trying to do.
Dr. Opree 28:08
Even though if you get them to eat their vegetables often enough, they will start to like some of them.
Yes, potentially. And it’s that if you can get them to eat them often enough part that is the hard part, isn’t it when they don’t like them. Yeah. And you also pointed out some research to me on parents who allow children a say and family purchase decisions. Can you tell us about that?
Dr. Opree 28:22
Yeah! Yeah. So it’s got to do with basically, I think, Esther, in our with you on a way that children deal with advertising and that your parents, as a parent, you can influence that as well by the kind of conversations you have at it. She also gave the example for teacher that if you as a teacher, just say don’t listen to advertising because it’s bad for business, not using average children don’t really think beyond that. And so we see the same thing when it comes to consumer-related conversations. That is, if parents just simply say, like for instance, when they’re out shopping or when your child want something like no, because I know best or we’re going to buy this for this and that reason, and always just making the decision by themselves, then children don’t really learn to reflect on consumer related matters either. Whereas if you have a conversation with them, so if you discuss certain family purchases, I must say some findings in the literature are ridiculous. So there is parents who will consult their children on what kind of car to buy. At that sort of thing to me seems a little bit far fetched. But you can imagine that, for instance, when it comes to cereals, for instance, as a parent, you would consult with your child because if you buy the wrong brand, they’re not going to use.
And then you’re in trouble.
Dr. Opree 29:51
So and it doesn’t always mean like sometimes you need to restrict the choice options, so that you’re not saying you can choose between anything between just like, which one do you prefer this one or that one. And basically, they’re learning then to reflect on the qualities of both products, but also to develop their own sense of agency. Because that’s the tricky thing as a parent, if you’re being strict and saying we’re doing it my way, and then children start to look for decision makers outside of themselves. So they are also, parents with that sort of parenting style, run the risk that their children, once they start, stop listening to them as teenagers for instance, that they then turn to their friends and wants to find their opinion on everything. Whereas you really want your child to be able to gain autonomy and make decisions for themselves.
Mm hmm. Okay, so that segues nicely into the contribution that peers make to children’s materialism then and I think we had seen in our interview with Dr. Pugh that peers are quite influential over children’s sort of view of brands and the way that They consume brands. How do you see the link here between the contribution that peers make specifically to children’s materialism?
Dr. Opree 31:07
Yeah. So the peers, actually have an influence in two different ways. So we have something that we call informational peer pressure, where children will actually sort of talk with their friends about their preferences, not only their own, but also wanting to find out what the other child likes, and for what reason. And so to sort of get an idea about anything that’s out there and basically just collect different opinions. And then they can sort of use that information in two ways. So there will be kids who sort of take that in, but don’t follow it to a tee. Other people, other children’s preferences, but there’s also children who are more susceptible to something we call normative peer pressure. And so that’s when you’re not only using this information to determine your own likes and dislikes, but where are you actually copying the other’s behavior. And that’s of course, especially when it comes to materialism, that’s the thing where you get into this, I want to have this particular toy, because all the other kids in my class have it as well.
Mm hmm. And so yeah, I saw one study in which children in an experimental group were more likely to choose a playmate who had a new toy that they’d seen advertised. So it seems as though there’s a big sort of curiosity, but also coolness factor involved there.
Dr. Opree 32:29
Yeah, a little bit of both. I would say I think the curiosity factor is also a big thing, which we also now see online. So you’ll have these ad channels where really children are unboxing toys, and other children love watching these, even though they cannot play with the toys themselves because they’re just watching the video. But they are still curious to the toys and what they can do. And so yes, this other kid might be cool for having this cool toy, but then I think it would depend on whether the kid actually likes the toy themselves. If they would want to have it yes or no.
So do you think parents should cave in if they feel, you know, they don’t really want to buy a toy for their child, but the child really wants to because they really want to fit in in school. What do you think?
Dr. Opree 33:19
Yeah, I think you should always check to which extent the story is accurate. Because sometimes kids can also say, but everyone has it. And it’s actually not true. So they are especially the older they get, the more aware they are of what kind of arguments work and don’t work. And this one is one that typically works well. So if you’re saying like I won’t fit in otherwise, then, of course, no parent will want their child to be the misfit in class and they all want them to have friends. And so it’s a compelling argument. Yeah, so check the story, but also think of what it is that they’re asking for and also if this is a product that you would actually be comfortable providing yourself as well. So sometimes these the things they can ask for are very small things. For instance, here in the Netherlands at one point, there was this crazy button certain type of pen sets, which was really just pens that they could draw and write with and that’s it which is of course, even though they are more expensive than the nonbranded ones, but which is different than asking for a PlayStation for instance because that’s way more expensive. So I think also, within as a parent, you should also determine for yourself sort of what kind of praises you want to Yeah, go buy if you think Okay, so this is justified yes or no. And sometimes you can also just make children wait so you can say, okay, you can have that PlayStation, if you can afford it, but you’ll have to wait for it until your birthday or until Christmas. Might ask it from Santa, and to actually at least teach them that they cannot have everything right there and then.
Yeah. Okay. And so I want to look a little more at advertising. And I know that you’re familiar with Dr. Esther Rozendaal’s work. I think you actually were colleagues together. Is that right?
Dr. Opree 35:19
Yes. And we actually also did research together.
Yeah. Okay, awesome. So we also have a bit of a basic understanding that she’s walked us through about how advertising kind of shapes the way children think about products. And so you looked you did a study looking at whether and how advertising exposure leads to materialism. So can you tell us what you found there, please?
Dr. Opree 35:41
Yeah, so what we actually see with that advertising exposure and materialism, is that the thing advertising does first and foremost, that’s why it’s being created is that it actually makes children long for the products they see in these advertisements. So they’re very flashy like we often see In advertisements. And I think Esther actually mentioned this as well, so how you actually sell a toy, it’s actually by showing that that cool kid has the toy and then all the other kids around him so that if you get that toy, you will actually be the one always the one everyone wants to play with, for instance. So advertising in that sense, often uses certain techniques to draw, get children’s attention, but also to draw them in. And there’s also lots of songs for instance, so if your children may have recalled some songs from advertising where you felt like a hole, please don’t sing it again. So it is very likely, yes, advertisers are successful in getting brand names and branded products into children’s minds and to actually sell them. And so this is what we see is that children who are exposed to a lot of advertising or at least the more they are exposed to advertising, the more they will actually long for heavily advertised products. And then and that sort of thing. transcends beyond that at some stage, because then they’re thinking of all these things that they’ve seen in the advertisements. But of course, life is not just all advertising, they do play with other kids, they also see what kind of toys and brands they have. And then they sort of start to as soon as they start longing for possessions, they will gradually also expand their scope of the kind of possessions they want, which goes beyond the ones that they see in advertising. The advertising that gets them started on other brand and possessions, but then it moves bigger than that.
Okay. And just to be clear, here, this was a causal result that you found, right? This was not a correlation, where what two things are linked? This was a causal result.
Dr. Opree 37:44
This was a causal result. Yes.
Okay. And so you were looking at 8to 11 year old children. Do you think the same holds true for younger children?
Dr. Opree 37:53
Yeah, so I’ve actually, we’ve also done a study with six to eight-year olds. To see If they’re materialism and advertising exposure, we’re related as well. And then we did find that actually four to six to eight-year olds, the effects of advertising isn’t as strong yet.
Okay. All right. Well, that’s some consolation, I guess. And then I read a bunch of your papers in preparation for this episode and was struck by some things that seemed to me to not quite fit together and I was hoping to get your help sorting it out. So there was a paper in 2013, and I’m going to quote a sentence from it, “Young Children may not recognize product symbolism and therefore unlikely to believe that products bring happiness and success. However, this does not mean that possessions can’t take a central place in their lives.” And then there was a later study where you were testing a scale that you developed to measure materialism in children, and it seemed like you’re reaching the opposite conclusion. You said, “Our study showed that material possessions do not only take a central place in young children’s lives, but are also associated with happiness and success.” And then an even more recent paper, you found that, “Advertising exposure did not predict positive relationships with others.” Which included peers actually. So what sense Can we make of all of this, please?
Dr. Opree 39:07
Can we start with the first group and you certainly recap it for me.
Yes, so earliest one not recognizing product symbolism and likely to believe that products bring happiness and success, but they can still take a central place in their lives. And then the second one, that material possessions do take a central place and are also associated with happiness and success.
Dr. Opree 39:25
Yeah, so this was actually the real reason to do the study among the six in the eight-year olds. Because if you look at the literature, and it’s actually the same literature I quoted earlier, as well, so the idea in is that children start to recognize product symbolism around the age of eight. And so that’s when they realize that they can use possessions also to become happier in the long run, and to belong and become more popular. But that was sort of the cutoff point that was used in the literature and while we’ve discussed it as well that the media landscape has changed or society left And so we thought let’s replicates previous research, do it among slightly younger group to sort of see are indeed is this true? Is it that it’s Yeah, that the product symbolism is only at the age of eight? Or is it also true that those younger kids don’t only want to collect things because that’s what actually this finding is also partly based that’s young children, if they, and Esther also talked about freebies, for instance, and so here we are in the Netherlands, we also had a big grocery store, who at Christmas time, give children the opportunity to go out collect houses for a small Christmas Village. And so they just want as many as they can get. So they don’t necessarily care if they have every single unique individual one, as long as they have many, whereas the older children, of course, they want to have all those houses as well, but they also want all the additional more unique ones. And so the idea was always that, okay, so young children want to collect stuff, but they don’t necessarily think beyond that, and what our research has actually shown. So we looked at how do you measure materialism among six to eight year olds? And really just testing like, do they have this notion of their products can bring happiness and that they can help you belong? And actually, they showed signs of that. So that’s how to work on fixing is that the old study didn’t, then we didn’t have these insights then which we do have today. But we actually know that all three facets of materialism can be present in older children as well.
Okay. And so just to draw this to a conclusion then, what do you think is the most important influence on children’s development in materialism? Is it still parents after we’ve explored peers and advertising and everything else?
Dr. Opree 41:51
I think so.
Yeah. Okay. Well, that’s some consolation. Okay, so I would like to look a little bit about kind of what the next generation is going to be like as they grow up and what implications that has for our society and, and I was seeing some dissonance in the literature because on one side, more than half of nine to 14 year olds agreed who were surveyed, when you grow up, the more money you have, the happier you are, and over 60% agree that the only kind of job I want when I grow up is one that gets me a lot of money. You know, the best and brightest of today’s students today want to go into investment banking, consulting, where you can make the most money. And yet we’re also seeing these trends away from purchases of things and more towards renting and purchasing experiences. And so I’m trying to understand whether you think young people today are more materialistic than ever before or not?
Dr. Opree 42:45
Yeah, so I think those are two different questions. There is a very specific research which has been done at the University of Tilburg, which I think is amazing because they are the first one they have this big longitudinal data sets. So they could actually, because they had thousands of individuals in it between and young ages up until all the way up into a pensioners. And so they were able to track these people over time and to actually see so what is predicting people’s materialism at that point of time? Is it their age? Is it the sense of the times? So also with for instance, also part of their data set also covered the economic crisis? So they really saw an increase in people’s materialistic values, because then what if you have nothing, then you become even more obsessed with getting it all back? Or whether it’s a gold horse effect? So whether it’s really that we are raised on different parenting styles, for instance, and it’s a very complicated study, but it does lead to very clear results and what they have found is that yes, younger people are more materialistic, and that is simply due to their age.
Okay, and why specific their age, what about their age?
Dr. Opree 44:02
So they still mainly look at yeah, so 18 years and up, but we do see with younger children. So there’s also research that has looked at basically what’s going on between the ages of nine to 17, I believe. And there we see also that the actually it takes with get a change from middle childhood, so that’s typically eight to 12, to adolescence, so 12 and up, which has to do with the fact that there is a lot of like, children, there’s a lot changing in their lives. So at least in the Netherlands, and this differs per country. But for instance, here at age 12, they make the transition from primary school to secondary school. And so they have to they are losing all the kids they used to play with. They’re entering a new school with all these kids in their classroom that they don’t know yet. And so that’s a part that makes them insecure. Will I be able to get new friends? And that’s also when they sort of yeah, again seek this assurance or security in brands that is as long as they have the right things they might be more likely to fit in. So that’s partly what drives it. So it’s transitions they experience. But of course, it’s not only transitions in the type of high school, but also in their own body. So we know that teenagers are very insecure, because their bodies are changing, they have to get used to this. Suddenly the kind of relationships they have to their peers are changing as well. And so it’s a very insecure time. And yeah, then possessions can provide a sense of security.
Yeah. And I’m just also thinking back to what you said about you know, if you have nothing then you will do what you can to get it all back and of course, getting it back as soon as you had it in the first place. And yeah, reminds me of the links between materialism and poverty and teens living in poverty tend to be more materialistic than those from more affluent households. And I think some researchers have pointed out that maybe low self-esteem as a possible mediator here, and then others have asked adolescence, in juvenile detention to write about their dreams. And notice that many of them are dreaming about money and possessions. And yet they’re released from detention with few skills to achieve these. And so what how do you get money in possessions if you don’t have sort of employable skills increases the likelihood of reoffending? And so I think, yeah, there are really profound links there between the inequalities that we see in our society as well.
Dr. Opree 46:29
Yeah, for sure, yeah. And that has to do with the fact that if you don’t have all the same things our kids have, of course, there can be quite confrontational as well. And so because of that, the discrepancy, the perceived discrepancies are also big and makes kids more materialistic, because they want to achieve that same goal. And it oftentimes also has to do with the parents who really want to do well for their children. So if they particularly want their children to do better and to fit in and to make sure they have all the right things. So that’s another thing and what we, for instance, also see. So I’ve actually also done, research myself on this together with a colleague, Agnes Nairn. And we’ve actually looked at these groups as well. So this work is still to be published. But we, for instance, are as well a difference in for instance, advertising exposure. So kids from less affluent families, they are not necessarily more susceptible to advertising, but they are exposed to a greater deal because they watch more media to begin with. So they are watching more television, they’re using the computer more, because sometimes they’re home alone. And that’s, yeah, the thing they turn to or when the affluent kids are going to all their different sports clubs, for instance, if your parents can’t afford that, then what do you do you sit at home and you try to entertain yourself there..
Yep. Yeah. And that really counters the sort of more common narrative of you know, it’s the poor children who don’t know what to think about these things and needs to be protected. And yeah, so it speaks much more to the inequality than any kind of other discrepancy that might commonly sort of be floated around. And just as we sort of move towards the idea of potentially reducing materialism, you would introduce me to the idea of post-materialism. And so I went and found a paper it was a super interesting paper from 1971. On this guy, Engelhart, who I think was one of the earliest researchers on it, and I was vastly amused to see his analysis. So he had this table in one of his papers, and it was about Britain’s declining relative economic position in the last century, which of course hits close to home for me. And so from 1900 to 1940, the US and Britain had the highest Gross National Product per capita, US first and Britain second by 1950, Sweden’s number two by 1970. The US is still number one, but eight other European countries are outranking Britain and then he goes on to describe his research that shows that the youngest cohort in each of these countries is more likely to endorse values that are post materialistic. And so, you know, non-acquisitive, and that the percentage of people who have post materialist values are highest in the countries with the highest gross national product per capita. And then I’m thinking, but that itself is a measure of how much people are buying. So how can we say that the people in these countries hold more post materialist values, if we’re also seeing them buying more stuff, because the GNP is going up?
Dr. Opree 49:32
Yeah, I think there’s many things to make of this. And I’m not sure what the explanation is. But if I think of it, yeah, several things come to mind. So one thing could be I don’t think that’s it, but it could be that it’s sort of rebellion against the status quo. So we do see that in yeah, societies where there’s high level of materialism and consumerism, where people will rebel against it so that they sort of feel like that this is not what we’re supposed to do. Another thing could be is that it seems to be a false. They never know how to pronounce that word, but like, it’s not necessarily one or the other. So you could imagine that, yes, you want to buy things, but you also, yeah, or cherishing other values as well, which are more post materialistic. So actually the example you gave of parents and how you can express that you really value family, like I think that’s an example of it. So in a materialistic point of view, you could emphasize that by spending a lot of money on your kids and on your home and on presence for each other, etc. But if you take a more post materialistic approach, then it’s more about the nurturing and spending time together, for instance, that you actually placed that first. So even though then you’re still in this capitalistic society where a lot of spending is going on you as an individual can still make a different choice as well. And I think there’s also a difference between really materialism simply because you want to own more things and because you really want to signal your status, or because and this is still part of materialism as well, because you just really cherish those possessions you have. So yes, you’re spending a lot of money and buying expensive things, but you do cherish them and the things they provide for you. And so you’re maybe spending your money in different ways as well. But it’s yeah, I think that could be something to do with it as well, if you’re appreciative, more of the things that you have, and also the fact that having money also can enable you to spend more time with your family, for instance, that’s part of it as well. So maybe I’m getting a bit off track. But what we plan to see in the Netherlands is that we have of course, more dual incomes. So we’re both the father and mother or or both parents are working. And so this is often seen as something which is characteristics of capitalist society as well. But because they are both working, they can also sacrifice a little bit of their income. So both this is popular in the Netherlands for both mothers but also fathers to say instead of working five days per week and going to work four days a week or three, so that I can actually be home with my child and so for mothers, it might mean that they are home less than they used to be two decades ago. But actually for two fathers, it means that their home more often. And that’s also a sign of post materialism, where are they actually value that more than creating the additional income?
Mm hmm. Okay. And so as we wrap up here, a lot of researchers have proposed a lot of ideas about how we could potentially reduce materialism. And so if we sort of take the premise that materialism is something that you want to reduce, what are some of the things that you think might be more effective and others I know taxes are one that’s commonly talked about if you tax things more then people won’t be able to buy as much. But then sort of a counter argument to that is people seem to feel as though well, if I can afford it, I’m going to buy it and then I sort of have this moral license to engage in this behavior, because I’ve paid for the privilege. And so there can be so many unintended consequences with a lot of these ideas and policies. So maybe can you walk us through some of the ones that you think might be most successful?
Dr. Opree 53:27
Yeah, most people don’t like their governments who tell them what to do and to pay more taxes, but what we do see so for me, it also has to do with the fact so Kasser is the one talks about that capitalistic societies are more materialistic and that the more materialistic they are, the less emphasis there is on the common goal. But also what we see on then a more individual level is that individuals sort of, again, put the ambition and a success in wealth first, over the connections with others and taking care, and just doing other stuff that can provide happiness as well. And he says that basically, if you want to reduce materialism, you need to make sure that’s those human connections and those other values such as generosity, that they are amplified. And so I think what we’re best if well at least in young kids to invest in their self-esteem a little bit as well, also for adolescents, but I think also teaching young people to be grateful, to be grateful ourselves as well for all the things that we have, and really just focus on making those connections. And the tricky thing is that sometimes possessions enable these connections. But I think if we’re more focused on what’s intrinsic to us, what makes us happy, outside of possessions that then basically the emphasis will shift.
Okay. All right. So that’s super helpful overview and I want to look specifically at maybe sort of giving things and giving money and things like charitable giving, it’s pretty common that when you give money to some kind of cause online that you can have your name attached to it. And so everybody can see how much you gave. And of course, I’m sure the idea is to pressure you into giving more. But there’s sort of a status thing there, isn’t it? And so that to me, it almost seems as though that’s increasing materialistic values, even though I’m giving something away rather than buying something.
Dr. Opree 55:31
Yeah, it’s a new way to display your wealth. Because barely you don’t need the money as much like you can give it away. You have so much of it, and that’s fine.
Yeah. Okay. And then on gifts. I struggle with this so much, particularly at Christmas. Because listeners know I’m an atheist, but somehow we somehow we still celebrate Christmas in our family. And my five year old has requested that next year, she only received candy and money for Christmas so that she can buy more candy. And so there was this awesome study that I read the analyzed children’s letters written to Santa. And it defined a gift as I’ll quote, “Any provision of good or service without guarantee of return with a view to creating nourishing or recreating social bonds between people.” And so I’m thinking, Okay, why do we need gifts to nourish social bonds? And then secondly, are Christmas gifts, really an example of social bonding? Because the letters that were studied in that research, were talking about, you know, oh, I’ve been so good this year, and I really deserve whatever toy it is that I’m asking you to give me. And so it seems so transactional and not related to social bonds at all. What do you think about that?
Dr. Opree 56:40
Yeah, yeah. Well, I think first of all, presence can have like, can create or signal social bonds between people. So sometimes you will see that people will go out of their way to find the perfect gift to demonstrate their love, so to say So in those cases, if they can be used to signal, like the strength of a friendship, for instance, or a family connection or a love connection. So the potential is there. But then again depends on the way that the gift is actually presented. So the kind of gift it is, but also the message it is presented with. So Christmas gifts have the potential to nourish social bonds. But if it’s indeed just like a wishlist, and a generic explanation of why they deserve this, then the potential is less there, I would say but then still, yeah. Then if you think of all those retrospective studies of people, as parents or adults looking back on their childhoods, they will recall getting certain things for Christmas as well, but wants to take from that kind of research, I think as well is that if people look back, they might not always mention the most expensive toy. So sometimes, the things children are happy with the most are the things least expected and that probably didn’t cost the most money?
Yes, yeah. I’m thinking about the collections of cardboard boxes and empty yoghurt containers, that have been keeping my daughter engaged for weeks. Yeah. And what about you had mentioned sort of teaching values and I’m just thinking about some of the research that’s talked about things like gratitude journals and encouraging people to reflect on their values and mindfulness and, and those kinds of things. Do you see a lot of value in those?
Dr. Opree 58:27
Yeah, to some extent. So I think these kind of methods work, at least if you say to look for adults, and probably the same thing goes for kids, especially if you talk about keeping a daily journal. Like at one point, I did a study asking kids to mark in a television guide, every program they’ve seen, they will do a tremendous job on day one and two, but like after a couple of days, they sort of lose focus. And I think we you run the same risk with a gratitude journal. So if you want to reinforce this, then maybe it should be dinner table conversation instead. Yeah, to ensure that it’s happening, but there’s definitely potential. Yes.
Okay, so the basic thing we want to leave with here is there is hope.
Dr. Opree 59:12
There. Yeah, most certainly. So yes, definitely.
Yeah. Okay. Well, thank you so much for sharing your time and your voluminous research with us.
Dr. Opree 59:22
Well, you’re welcome.
So listeners can find all of the references and there are many for today’s episode, and other things that we’ve discussed as well at yourparentingmojo.com/materialism.
Thanks for joining us for this episode of Your Parenting Mojo. Don’t forget to subscribe to the show at yourparentingmojo.com to receive new episode notifications and the FREE Guide to 7 Parenting Myths That We Can Leave Behind and join the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group for more respectful research based ideas to help kids thrive and make parenting easier for you. I’ll see you next time on Your Parenting Mojo.
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About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.
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