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Location: Children and Family

Materialism vs. Self Esteem


by Crown Financial Ministries

American children, and children around the world with access to Western media, are exposed to information and
advertisements that are designed to turn them into consumers, either directly with their own funds, or more commonly
through influencing their parents or grandparents.

The primary influencing medium has been television for the last few decades, with lesser exposure from radio and movies. A
growing influence is cross-exposure from the Internet with children’s social network communities like Webkins. Grocery
stores and, of course, toy stores are set up with eye-catching displays at just the right height to capture the attention of
children who are “shopping” with their parents.

The effectiveness of this consumer culture on young children is enumerated by Juliet Schor in her book, Born to Buy: The
Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture , in which she reports the age-related research describing potential
precursors of materialism (see chart below for some of her findings for younger children). 1

Schor researched and wrote the book out of concern for her own children and reports, “Contemporary American tweens and
teens have emerged as the most brand-oriented, consumer-involved, and materialistic generation in history. And they top
the list globally...More children here than anywhere else believe that their clothes and brands describe who they are and
define their social status.” 2

Although much data has been collected and the high evidence of materialism in children has been much lamented, there is a
lack of academic research to support the many assumptions that have been made. Most research has focused on adults.
Researchers at the Universities of Illinois and Minnesota have made an effort to study materialism in childhood, in particular
the existence of age differences during childhood and adolescence. Based on prior study by Kasser, this new study focuses
on self-esteem as an explanation for age differences in materialism. 3

Kasser’s work links materialism with unhappiness as both cause and effect. He states that materialism expends the energy
necessary for living, loving, and learning, and instead of delivering happiness, delivers stress and strain. Conversely,
materialism seems to develop more deeply among people who have feelings of personal insecurity. 4

According to Chaplin and John, peer pressure, targeted marketing campaigns, and poor, lenient, or indulgent parenting have
all been blamed for increasing materialism in children. Their two studies demonstrate that a child/adolescent’s level of
materialism is inversely connected to their self-esteem.

In the first study, they found that materialism increases from middle childhood (8 and 9 years old) to early adolescence (12
and 13 years old) but then declines by the end of high school
(16 to 18 years old). Self-esteem shows the opposite pattern and instead decreases in early adolescence but increases in late
adolescence. Dr. John summarized the results and stated, “When self-esteem drops as children enter adolescence,
materialism peaks. Then by late adolescence, when self-esteem rebounds, their materialism drops.” 5

In the second study, John and Chaplin boosted self-esteem by giving children positive information about peer acceptance.
This self-esteem “prime” drastically reduced the high levels of materialism in 12 to 13 year olds and the moderate levels of
materialism in 16 to 18 year olds. The authors conclude that giving children or adolescents a sense of self-worth and
accomplishment appears to be effective in reducing the emphasis on material goods. 6

Dr. Dobson, in his classic book, Dare to Discipline, provides two character-building reasons to avoid saturating the child with
excessive materialism. The first is that children who are given whatever they want rarely develop a sense of appreciation for
anything that they receive. The second is that the child who is given too much is actually cheated out of the experience of
pleasure. By allowing a child to intensely want something by temporarily depriving or preventing him or her from having it
immediately (delayed gratification), the parent enables the child to experience the pleasure that occurs when an intense
need is satisfied. 7

1 of 1 The information in this article was adapted from the original articles by Bette Noble, Crown Sr. R&D Specialist, Global 7/9/2008 9:11 PM