Parents have a new weapon in the battle to hush demands for $500 handbags and $250 jeans this Christmas: compliments.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota have found that a child's need for material objects is tied to his or her self-esteem. The weaker their self-esteem, the greater their desire for the material trappings of adolescent popularity, according to the study published in the current issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.
Until recently, little research has probed what triggers materialism in children. "It's always such a mystery trying to understand why children, and particularly teens, do what they do," said Deborah John, who co-authored the study.
"This should be a good lesson for parents being pestered for all these very expensive things."
To figure out why children covet the iPod and Nintendo at $400 a pop, Dr. John, a marketing professor, and her colleagues conducted two studies. In the first, they examined 150 youngsters - 50 each from three age cohorts: 8-to-9-year-olds, 12-to-13-year-olds and 16-to-18-year-olds. They then asked the kids a series of questions about their self-esteem and had them create a collage of items that made them happy.
Those with low self-esteem were more likely to arrange a hodge-podge of cars, money, jewellery, sports equipment and - among the youngest bunch - stuffed animals. The children with high self-regard assembled images related to friends, family and outdoor activities such as camping.
A striking correlation emerged from the results. For the 8-to-9-year-olds, self-esteem was relatively high and materialism relatively low.
But those results reversed for the middle group. Self-esteem nosedived among the 12-to-13-year-olds, while the desire for big-ticket items peaked.
By the late teens, the children had recovered most of their pre-teen self-regard and asceticism.
"I'd always wanted to know why all of a sudden a child can hit 12 or 13 and become an absolute pester machine," said Dr. John, who has two former pre-teens of her own, now aged 17 and 21. "Well, it's because they have this low self-worth and they've figured out that they can use brands and possessions to signal certain things about themselves."
When Dr. John saw the correlation, she wanted to devise a surefire method of curbing that pre-teenage materialism. As a second part of their study, researchers discovered that propping up a child's self-esteem is as simple as giving them a well-earned compliment.
In the second study, she looked at 12-to-13-year-olds in summer camps and found that children who were given paper plates bearing compliments such as "smart" and "fun" immediately reined in their materialistic tendencies.
"It really surprised us to see how much a small compliment can make a difference," Dr. John said.
But too many parents do exactly the opposite, child experts say, caving to their child's every request for clothes and electronics. In effect, they become complicit in suppressing their kid's self-regard.
"You end up creating a Britney Spears effect," says Michael Ungar, a professor at the School of Social Work at Dalhousie University and the author of several books on youth. "You are telling them that 'you are what you have.' It's all very superficial."
Dr. Ungar suggests including kids in holiday cooking and decorating as a way of propping up a child's self-esteem. "We have to offer them a way of asserting an identity," he said, "rather than buying one."