So in other words, parents who act in ways that value things, parents who make a lot of sacrifices to get a lot of things, parents who get a lot of joy from buying things, parents who talk a lot about things—they tend to have adult children who act the same way. Now, part of this is probably some bias as people recall their childhoods, but I don’t think that’s all of it. The helpful thing for parents here—and also the harmful—is yes, peers are really important, but our kids are watching us. Our kids are learning from us. A lot of what kids take to be normal comes from what they see us doing. Kids are going to learn what their relationship with products should be by looking at our relationship with products. So we can’t entirely override peers, but we certainly can have influence in that way.
How much do parents matter?
Pinsker: And from what I understand, that connects to the research you’ve done on when parents offer physical things as rewards.
Richins: Rewards and punishments, yes. And those can be earned or unearned rewards. So that’s another reasonably strong association: Children who recall that their parents just bought them stuff when they wanted it, or who paid them money or bought them things when they got good grades, there’s a very consistent association that when these things happen in childhood, when that person is an adult, they’re more likely to be materialistic.
And I’m looking now at what parents do when their kid’s unhappy, or upset, or they have a big disappointment—how do parents deal with that? And my preliminary evidence suggests that it’s something that’s learned in childhood. The parents might say, “Oh, you didn’t make it on to the team—let’s go out and have something to eat,” or, “Let’s go out and get you a new video game—that’ll take your mind off it.” Well, if the parents do that with their kids, we find that as adults, people are more likely to deal with distress in the same way, by giving themselves a little gift.
Pinsker: Has doing this research changed the way you parent?
Richins: I remember I started this research when my daughter was in seventh grade, actually. [Laughs] So I didn’t have the results of the research. But would I have done anything differently? Probably not. I never thought it was a good idea to reward children tangibly for the things that they do, because I don’t think life works that way—there are a lot of things you have to do and you don’t get any reward for them. Your reward is you get to stay alive or you get to keep your job.
I did do material punishments quite a bit, though—taking stuff away, like, “This toy has to go away because you were disrespectful.” That was really the only thing that worked with my daughter, who has a pretty good mind of her own.
Pinsker: And when you did that, and she complained, did you get to respond that it was backed up by the research?
Richins: No. [Laughs] I didn’t have any research then, and plus, you know, a seventh grader is not impressed by that. I played the research card with my daughter all the time—not necessarily with my research, but as in “Research shows that blah blah blah.” She just got tired of hearing that. It carried no weight whatsoever.