In a capitalist economy it is hard to get away from the temptation to think that more ‘stuff’ equates to more happiness.  We live in a society which needs a constant flow of consumer products to keep the economy going, and advertisers specifically market happiness. 

Sometimes society's materialistic mentality leads to people having fewer children because they are worried they won’t be able to provide their children (and themselves) with a wide array of material goods seemingly deemed necessary by society (and advertisers).

As parents, we can also be subjected to the difficult argument of ‘everybody has one’ and be forced to make a decision about how we deal with that.

Despite this, research is at least clear that more wealth does not increase human happiness (expect when you move up from being in absolute poverty to having enough to survive).

Research also shows that children who are less materialistic are (according to parenting expert Dr Michele Borber):

  • more “we” oriented, than “me” oriented;
  • more concerned about others, and less worried about how they look and what they own;
  • more empathetic, caring, compassionate and morally courageous; and
  • their self-esteem is more authentic.


So, as parents, what can we do help our children combat materialism?  Here are six suggestions to get you started:

1) Model restraint yourself – always the hardest thing but by far the most important.  Research shows that parents who are materialistic raise the most materialistic kids. So what kind of example are you setting? 

2) Spend more time with, than money on, your kids – Make a conscious effort to spend time together doing things that don’t cost anything: Go to the park and the museum, talk, take bike rides, build forts, bake, and play board games. 

3) Rotate toys – This means putting some away so you only have a few available at any one time.  This can reduce messups, help children learn they don’t need so much to have a good time, and make the rotated items more appreciated and like new again.  Fewer toys might also encourage more creativity and problem solving. 

4) Have fewer $$$$ rewards –  Some research shows that adults who received more material rewards and punishments as children are more likely than others to use possessions to define and express who they are as adults.  Try to think of alternatives such as a family fun night, or at the very least have children work and earn things over a long period of time with actual effort.   Waiting and earning are part of responsible adult life.  A popular suggestion is the use of the ‘special red plate’ as a reward that children appreciate and apparently works.

5) Teach the habit of “giving” not “getting” – “Hands on” giving helps counter materialism more powerfully than almost anything else.  Examples might include bringing dinner to a sick neighbour or putting cans in the collection at your local church.  You could attempt to foster detachment by regularly giving items you no longer need to the hospice shop where they can be used by others for good, rather than accumulating clutter. Another idea might be for your child to choose one or two Christmas presents each to year to give away to others, or other ‘things’ in their control, such as a portion of an allowance.  To foster empathy, have your child shut his eyes and visualize the recipients’ reactions to their gift.    

6) Be careful of TV commercials and other media.  Luckily it is now easier than ever to avoid ads now because only watching things like Netflix or DVDs is more the norm than in the past.  You can also establish the culture in your family that TV, phones, computers, games etc. are a privilege, not a right, and that you retain the right to control children’s access to them and view things like text histories as well.  As an added bonus, without too much media families have much more time to talk and parents better learn about what is going on in their children’s developing minds.  


Overall, as a family try to focus on the things that you decide really bring you joy and meaning, rather than letting materialism and material goals cause you unnecessary stress.


Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...