New research has found such children expect more presents from their parents at Christmas, exert more influence on what their parents buy, are more likely to buy something they saw on TV, and are less likely to have a savings account.
And parents who scored the highest on the materialism scale had the most materialistic children.
"The bottom line is when the parent looks at the child, the parent has to look in the mirror," says Marvin Goldberg, lead author of the study and a professor of marketing at Penn State University. "You shape their values more than anyone."
Goldberg and his colleagues developed a test called the Youth Materialism Scale to determine children's materialism relative to their peers. The questionnaire was given to 540 parents and 996 children between the ages of 9 and 14.
The researchers focused on children in this age group, called tweens, because they are increasingly being targeted by advertisers. The 27 million tweens in the United States directly or indirectly influence $170 billion in sales, according to the study.
"Marketers have reached down to a still younger age and are now marketing products to tweens that were previously limited to teen-agers," Goldberg says. "Why is this so significant? One way or another, it serves to rob children of their childhood."
The children in the study were asked whether they "disagree a lot," "disagree a little," "agree a little" or "agree a lot" with a series of statements.
The statements included: "I have fun just thinking of all the things I own." "I'd rather spend time buying things than doing almost anything else." "The only kind of job I want when I grow up is one that gets me a lot of money."
The study found that the most materialistic kids -- those whose scored in the upper quartile -- were more interested in TV commercials than the least materialistic children, those in the lowest quartile. About 68 percent of tweens in the upper quartile said they watched commercials most of the time, compared to 54 percent of those in the lowest quartile.
About 77 percent of the children who scored the highest on the materialism scale said they expected their parents to buy a product because they saw it on TV, compared to 50 percent of the least materialistic children.
About 22 percent of the most materialistic children said they had called a phone number shown on TV to buy a product, compared to 14 percent of the least materialistic kids.
And although only 45 percent of the most materialistic kids had a savings account, 59 percent of the least materialistic did.
Youths who scored high on the materialism scale also expected their parents to spend more on birthday and Christmas presents -- $182.01, compared to $115.61 for less materialistic children.
"I'm a professor from a business school; I start from the premise that advertising is a major function without which our standard of living could not be achieved," Goldberg says. "There are lots of products out there that make our lives simpler, easier, better and safer. But I've become quite concerned when this function runs away with itself and we don't do enough to protect children."
Goldberg says his study, which is to appear in an upcoming issue of the
Journal of Consumer Psychology, was criticized at first for lumping pre-pubescent 9-year-olds with 14-year-olds. But the marketing of products tied to pop music sensations like Britney Spears and 'N Sync is as much directed at the younger kids as the older ones, he says.
Stanley Goldstein, a child clinical psychologist in private practice in Middletown, N.Y., says the word "materialistic" is pejorative, and he has some doubts about Goldberg's conclusions.
In and of itself, there's nothing wrong with the desire to shop and acquire new goods, Goldstein says.
Children use products, like clothing, skateboards or music, to differentiate themselves from grown-ups; it's a normal part of growing up, he says.
But, he adds, "contrary to people's beliefs, kids are not easy to market to or to manipulate."
Problems occur when parents use gifts and other material goods as a substitute for love and attention, he says.
"You do not spoil a child by giving them everything they want," Goldstein says. "You can only spoil a child by giving them things in place of emotional support and attention. Then you harm them."
What To Do
If you've decided to change your materialistic ways, you might consider giving an "alternative" gift this holiday season.
Alternatives for Simple Living was started in 1973 as a protest against the commercialism of Christmas.
Alternative Gifts International is a organization that lets you give a gift, in the name of a friend or family member, to a charity or relief organization. The group puts out a catalog each year of approximately 30 relief agencies around the world that it has researched. This year's suggested gifts include $24 to feed an orphan in Romania or $30 to support a child with HIV in Romania.