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The Hidden Downside to Rewarding Your Kids for Good Behavior

Next time you want to show your children you're pleased with their perfect report card or good behavior, skip the visit to the toy shop.

Though your intention might be to reinforce responsible or thoughtful actions, new research suggests that providing treats like money, toys, or sweets can backfire on parents. A study published Wednesday in the Journal of Consumer Research found that children who receive more material rewards grow up to be more, well, materialistic.

"Parents don’t want their children to use possessions to define their self-worth or judge others, yet loving and supportive parents can also use material goods to express their love, paving the way for their children to grow up to be more likely than others to admire people with expensive possessions," said authors Marsha Richins of the University of Missouri and Lan Nguyen Chaplin of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

By using possessions to reward—or, on the flip side, punish—children, parents may be setting the stage for long-term overconsumption, the study found. Children raised in households where acts of discipline involved giving or taking away belongings were more likely to continue rewarding and defining themselves with material things. They also grew up to admire people with expensive possessions and judge people based on what they own.

If that doesn't sound bad enough, materialism in adulthood has also been linked to reduced feelings of well-being, marital problems, and financial difficulties, the authors noted.

Of course, many parents might wonder what they can do to reinforce good behavior without using material rewards. While the authors caution that using experiential rewards (say, a trip to Disneyland) can also make kids more materialistic, teaching your children to be grateful can mitigate the negative effects of any rewards you provide.

"One viable strategy might be to encourage gratitude in children—reward children, but also teach and encourage them to be thankful for the people and things in their lives," they wrote. "Gratitude has been found to increase the value placed on connections to people, mindful growth, and social capital."

For help walking the fine line between giving your child too much and giving them just enough, see how first-time dad and MONEY writer Taylor Tepper learned the secrets to not spoiling his child.

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