What's the best gift for kids? The latest video game or a family outing?

Because of the pandemic this year, Christmas was a little different from usual, but one thing didn't change. Kids of all ages received gifts: teddy bears and Legos for the little ones and the latest video game for the older ones. Have you ever wondered whether kids might actually prefer intangible gifts, like sharing time with family and friends?

Lan Nguyen Chaplin, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Illinois, Chicago and her colleagues at HEC Paris, and the Universities of Michigan and Minnesota set out to determine whether children and adolescents (ages 3 to 17) felt greater joy when receiving material gifts or by sharing an experience. Over the course of four studies, the researchers showed that the subjects, ages 3 to 12, derive greater happiness from material goods, but that this tendency changes over time. Indeed, it seems that shared experiences actually produce greater happiness in adolescents. According to Chaplin, these results go against popular belief: “experiences are highly coveted by adolescents, not just expensive material things, like some might think.”

However, we shouldn’t be mistaken about the preferences of young children; they aren't actually “hopelessly” materialistic; they too love experiences. Certainly, amusement parks are a testament to this fact. As the study states, “young children do love experiences. However, for experiences to provide enduring happiness, children must be able to recall details of the event long after it is over.” This is the major difference: for young children, the material item constitutes a “memory aid,” which can give them a “jolt of happiness” at any time. However, as the authors indicate, photos and videos of moments with family and friends can also prolong happy experiences. Thus, children cannot only appreciate their Christmas gifts, they can also “relive” moments spent with family and friends.

This tendency to favor experiences over material goods as we get older could in part be explained by an increase in two cognitive skills. The authors consider both memory and theory of mind as necessary for a sufficient understanding of experiences and their implications. Indeed, as we’ve just related, the first must be sufficiently developed to allow us to relive happy events (without necessarily relying on objects). The second, theory of mind, is the ability to attribute mental state (emotions, intentions, desire…) to oneself and others. This ability makes our social relationships more effective and harmonious.

In conclusion, the authors state that, “with age, creating new memories and exploring new interests may be far more valuable than acquiring new possessions.” Food for thought...
Source: Lan Nguyen Chaplin, Tina M. Lowrey, Ayalla A. Ruvio, LJ Shrum, Kathleen D. Vohs. “Age differences in children's happiness from material goods and expériences: The role of memory and theory of mind”, in International Journal of Research in Marketing, Sept. 2020 // University of Illinois, Chicago: "Why experiences are better gifts for older children” - https://today.uic.edu/why-experiences-are-better-gifts-for-older-children

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