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Materialism in Children

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Materialism is an attitude or personal value that places a lot of importance on money and the possession of things. How much is ‘a lot’ is a matter of opinion and will vary between families and cultures, based on their beliefs.

Materialism in children can become a problem when it’s out of balance with other values. In children it is often associated with low self-esteem and can lead to a downward spiral, as they seek to feel better about themselves by owning more desirable things.

Why do some children become materialistic?

Psychologists have found that materialism in children builds from the age of eight or nine, as they become increasingly self-aware, compare themselves to others and may struggle with self-esteem. In their late teens most children become more comfortable with who they are and their materialism typically subsides.

If the world around a young child tends to portray money and possessions as life’s rewards and the keys to happiness, they’ll be more likely to pursue materialism to boost their self-esteem. As with many learned behaviours, the strongest influences include their parents’ attitudes and behaviours, the advertising messages they’re exposed to and the values of their peers.

How to tell if your child might be overly materialistic

Many parents who are concerned about keeping their child’s materialism in balance have come to recognise a few warning signs. These can include:

  • Always expecting money or toys for completing routine tasks
  • Throwing major hissy-fits when you won’t get them the latest must-have cool gadgets, which apparently ‘everyone else’s parents’ are buying for their kids
  • An inability to give away or dispose of old toys they haven’t used for years
  • Constantly saying they’re bored, have nothing to do or don’t have anything to play with, when the opposite is true
  • Quickly losing interest in a new purchase they ‘couldn’t live without’ a week ago

How to reduce a child’s materialism

A 2016 New York Times article reported on a study of 71 families with ‘high materialism score’ children. Half of the children in the study attended sessions for eight weeks that were designed to reduce their materialism. Compared to the other group, these children showed a marked decrease in their materialism score and an increase in self-esteem. 

Here’s a summary of the study’s recommendations for parents.

  • Give your children a regular allowance that’s split into three parcels; money for saving, spending and giving; and talk with them about the reasons behind their decisions
  • Talk as a family about your income and expenses, so your kids understand how you manage money
  • Help your children learn how to separate must-haves from nice-to-haves and to understand how and why you prioritise some things, such as having family holidays and experiences together rather than owning a flash car
  • Talk about how advertising and peers can make people want things, and continue recognising examples together as they occur
  • Encourage your children to identify and learn from someone they know who seems to be good at keeping a balance between wanting, spending and needing
  • Make this something you continue to talk openly about as a family throughout their pre-teen and teenage years

Other experts suggest you can reduce your child’s materialism and build their self-esteem by focusing on their emotional needs rather than material things, being careful not to reward them with material things, not showing your love through bought gifts, and not punishing them by taking away material things, such as a video game or phone.

When it comes to your child’s allowance, it’s often recommended that some of their spending money is expected to cover a few everyday necessities, such as bus and lunch money. As they get older, increase the allowance to include clothing, school stationery requirements, entertainment and so on. Initially you can pay them in cash, but later you could set your child up with an online bank account that’s linked to yours. That way you can pay them automatically online, keep an eye on their account, let them monitor their money online and give them an EFTPOS or debit card for independent spending.



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