As parents, your child is going to look to you for direction: What should they value, and how should they behave? Research claims materialism has reached an alarming high in today’s teens, but materialism isn’t something you’re born with or that is embedded in anyone’s DNA. Materialism is a behavior adopted when someone’s main focus is getting what they want and rarely pausing to appreciate the things they already have. In other words, it’s up to us to shift our own focus off material goods to what truly matters in life—like love and generosity.
According to a new study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, the secret to raising a child who isn’t materialistic is to instill a sense of gratitude in them from the get-go.
For their research, a team of experts recruited over 900 adolescents between the ages of 11 and 17 to perform a series of experiments. In the first, 870 participants completed an online survey comprised of a list of statements like “When I grow up, the more money I have, the happier I’ll be,” and “It’s easy to think of things to be thankful for.” Participants were asked to read each statement and determine whether or not they agreed or disagreed with the sentiment. This allowed the researchers to a) evaluate just how much value each participant placed on money/materialistic goods, and b) to gauge how grateful they were for the people and possessions in their lives. In the end, the more gratitude a child expressed, the less materialistic they proved to be.
In another experiment, 61 adolescents completed the same questionnaire before being split into two groups: The control group was asked to keep a basic daily journal tracking their day’s activities, while the intervention group was encouraged to “record who and what they were thankful for each day.” After two weeks of logging their days, each participant was gifted $10 with the option to either keep it all or anonymously donate some or all of their earnings to charity. The researchers found that participants who’d practiced gratitude through journaling were more generous with their dollars than those in the control group.
“Our findings show that it is possible to reduce materialism among young consumers, as well as one of its most common negative consequences (nongenerosity) using a simple strategy—fostering gratitude for the things and people in their lives,” Lan Nguyen Chaplin, a University of Illinois at Chicago marketing professor and co-author of the study, writes in the paper.
In this particular study, having children keep a gratitude journal proved to be effective—though notably, of those asked to keep a more basic journal, a mere 17 percent wrote gratefulness statements without the prompting. So if you’re going to encourage your child to journal, make sure to specifically encourage them to write gratitude statements.
There are also countless other ways to practice gratitude if writing isn’t your or your child’s forte. For example, California psychiatrist Dr. Monisha Vasa says one of the best ways to teach your kids about gratitude is to engage in random acts of kindness in front of them.
“Allow children to witness you modeling being helpful and kind to others in small or big ways,” she tells mbg. “Children will often replicate our behavior. Noticing and participating in acts of kindness as a family allows for more connection and positive experiences, which we can all be grateful for.”
Verbal cues of gratitude are also one of the easiest ways to spread and encourage appreciation for others and all the little blessings life has to offer. Amy McCready, author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic,tells mbg things like calling out the silver linings in tough situations, saying thank you when your child is being helpful, and taking time at the dinner table to list things you’re grateful for that day will ultimately lead to gratitude being a part of your child’s attitude every day.
Lastly, remember that children learn from your example, so it’s important that not only are you encouraging your little ones or teenagers to cultivate gratitude for things they already possess and the people who love and support them, but you should also be doing so in a way that shows you practice what you preach.