December 23rd, 2007

Boost children's self-esteem, curb 'gimme' attitude

By Julie Deardorff
Chicago Tribune

Last month, my 3-year-old lost it in a toy store because I didn’t buy Max and Monty, an overpriced pair of dump trucks from the Thomas the Tank Engine series.

“Sweetie, you don’t need Max and Monty,” I tried. “You have lots of Thomas trains.”

When he threw himself on the floor and began screaming, “But I want it! I want it!” I began to worry. Yes, it was fairly typical—albeit ugly—behavior for a U.S. preschooler, but was I also witnessing an ominous sign of things to come?

Social scientists—and plenty of parents—have labeled the nation’s tweens and teens “the most brand-oriented and materialistic generation in history.”

Parents who hope to teach their children how to live simply have tried turning off the TV or muting the ads. They’ve joined groups such as Commercial Alert, Commercial-Free Childhood or Center for a New American Dream that advocate reducing U.S. commercialization. And they’ve modeled the behavior they want to see.

But since it’s impossible to shield a child from their everyday environment and the influence of friends and peers, researchers who study materialism are now suggesting an additional antidote: work on raising your child’s self-worth and sense of accomplishment.

Low self-esteem can create materialistic tendencies in children, according to Lan Nguyen Chaplin, an assistant marketing professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who co-authored a new study that looked at how materialism develops in youngsters.

Chaplin and her colleague found that between the ages of 8 to 13, a child’s level of self-esteem drops, in part because of physical changes. The self-conscious tweens turn to material goods to make themselves feel better. Then, surprisingly, as self-esteem rebounds by the end of high school, roughly between the ages of 16 and 18, the need for consumer goods goes down, according to the work published in this month’s Journal of Consumer Research.

If a child has a stronger sense of self during these down-swings, the researchers believe, they’re less likely to see material goods as the key to happiness and popularity.

“It’s the strongest evidence to date that self-esteem is actually a cause of materialism; all past evidence has been correlational and thus has left open the possibility that materialism causes low self-esteem, or there’s some third variable,” said Knox College psychology professor Tim Kasser, who has studied materialism and values for 20 years but was not involved in Chaplin’s study. What’s important, he said is that their finding “opens the possibility of future interventions designed to focus on low self-esteem children and help them resist the problematic influences of consumer culture.”

Experts say to raise a child’s self-esteem, key in on an interest—drawing, music, sports, fantasy play, debating—interact with him and give him positive, supportive messages. But don’t overdo it, either. “Don’t drown him in praise, and make sure your words are genuine and honest,” said Stanley Greenspan, a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School and author of “Great Kids” (De Capo, $22.95).

“It should not be empty praise,” he added. “And you don’t have to say a word. It can be the smile on your face, the gleam in your eyes.”

Focusing on family activities rather than material things can also help, said Beth Casarjian, a mother of three and co-author of “Mommy Mantras"(Broadway, $16.95). “Kids will remember the time you made a snowman for them a lot longer than the plastic toy that gets broken or lost shortly after it’s opened,” she said.

Also, give your child the opportunity to serve others in need. “Younger children can choose or wrap a gift for a child while adolescents might help in a food pantry,” Casarjian said. “Focusing on those with less gives a sense of perspective that can become part of a larger family dialogue of gratitude. Most important, helping others contributes to a child’s genuine sense of well-being and self-worth.”

Though preschoolers won’t appreciate this, it might also help to remember Kasser’s 2002 study in the Journal of Happiness Studies that discovered what really makes for a “Merry Christmas.” He found that family and religion were the two factors most closely tied to holiday happiness.

What caused the most dissatisfaction? Spending money and receiving gifts.

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