PARIS: It’s that time again: An estimated two billion people in 160 countries are gearing up to celebrate Christmas by exchanging food and gifts – or even, as is the case in northern India, by planting trees.
Of those celebrating, around 600 million are children under 14, many living in cultures actively promoting the buying and sharing of presents, according to The Atlantic.
In the United States alone, US$1 trillion was spent on Christmas holiday retail sales last year, financial information site Fortunly stated.
On average, American parents spent US$422 per child on Christmas presents in 2017 - a figure which is likely to take a severe beating in the COVID-19 context, however.
Of course, Christmas in Asia rarely reaches such extremes with only Singapore, the Philippines and South Korea celebrating it on a national level.
But, with the growing impact of expat communities, splurges around Christmas are gaining ground in Chinese, Japanese and Indian cities.
It goes some way to explaining the growing number of toy drones, sportswear, Peppa Pig cartoons and AI robots on offer in the Hopson One Mall in Beijing over Christmas, for example.
WHAT BRINGS MORE HAPPINESS?
Here’s the catch, though: Many of these well-intentioned presents could be completely missing their targets.
It’s a question laid bare by six years of research by an international team of researchers based in the US and France involving almost 500 American children aged 3 to17 years old: When do children begin to value experiences as opposed to material goods? Our research has homed in on the moment when children derive more happiness from personal experiences than from material possessions.
The 15-page report, published in the International Journal of Research in Marketing, reveals that although younger children do indeed prefer toys over experiences, a majority of those entering older adolescence would gladly trade in their toys for an unforgettable experience.
This is particularly the case in the 15 to 17 years age bracket.
Little research has been devoted to this cognitive evolution and its impact on marketing strategies, mainly because of the complexities linked to authorisations needed from the child’s parents.
Our research hypothesis was triggered six years ago when our paper’s lead researcher, associate professor of marketing Lan Nguyen Chaplin, threw what she hoped would be the ultimate children’s playground experience for her six-year-old’s birthday: Inflatable structures, endless games, good food, glow-in-the-dark accessories making it the ultimate “cosmic bounce party”.
But when Lan asked her son what the best part of the day was, he replied: “All the presents I got!”
Retrospectively, the gift bags with puzzles and Star Wars Legos made him happier than did the special time playing and bonding with his family and friends.
Her son’s apparent greater joy from his presents than from his experience made us wonder when children begin to place more value on experiences, and how this process occurs. We know it will, because clearly shows that experiences make adults happier than do material goods.
IT’S A NATURAL TRANSITION
This move away from physical gifts to presents which are gateways to non-material, yet thrilling, experiences appears to be a slow yet inexorable process.
Our study traces children’s evolution away from material goods, largely thanks to increases in two of their cognitive skills: Memory and a growing awareness of the mental state of others, something we call theory of mind.
Episodic memory is a category of long-term memory based on explicit experiences - your first date, graduation day, and your marriage. We reasoned that episodic memory is essential for enjoying experiences after they have occurred. The problem is, under-13s appear to find it hard to encode, organise, store, or retrieve details about past experiences, especially abstract ones.
Most experiences are also social ones, but enjoying social experiences requires good social skills, in particular the ability to take others’ perspectives.
Young children are deficient in both of these cognitive skills. Younger children appear to find it hard to encode, organise, store, or retrieve details about past experiences, primarily because they are more abstract than the more tangible goods.
And for younger children, their world is centred on the self and they find it hard to understand that others may have different thoughts of their own. Who has not laughed when young children hide by covering their eyes with their hands, not realising that others around them can still see them?
Thus, we wondered whether the development of better memory and theory of mind skills –which occurs with age – might increase happiness that children derive from experiences.
OLDER KIDS APPRECIATE THE EXPERIENCE
In our four studies with children of different age groups in childcare centres, summer camps and martial arts clubs, we devised collage exercises and hour-long interviews with each of the participants in this experiment.
What we found was that very young children derived more happiness from material goods than from experiences, but that happiness from experiences increased with age, to the point where the trend was reversed: Older adolescents indicated they derived more happiness from experiences than from goods.
We were able to empirically narrow down that transition to the 13 to 15 years age group. That’s when children appear to lose some of the excitement of receiving material gifts like a doll house, as non-materialistic experiential exchanges, like a trip to Disneyland, shared with others overtakes the former.
What we also found was that these increases in happiness from experiences with age were due to increases in both memory and theory of mind skills: The better developed were children’s memory and theory of mind, the more they enjoyed experiences.
Experiences are more abstract, compared to tangible material goods, and they are more social. Having a well-developed memory and theory of mind allows older children to better recall the experiences and understand how they foster good social bonds with their friends.
Young children’s theory of mind is under-developed, as are social and memory skills. These only blossom with age - the turning point in our four case studies appears to be 13 years old onwards. It seems that young children are more enthralled by cosmic items than cosmic experiences.
Whilst our research focuses on a clear socio-cultural group - middle and upper-middle class children from mixed backgrounds - we are convinced that children worldwide go through similar growth patterns.
We are also aware, however, of the socio-cultural and socio-economic distinctions which also have an impact on children’s happiness and responses to gifts.
Equally, the gender of the child and even the impact of adolescent hormones could influence this tendency towards more abstract rewards in life. These are dimensions we hope to explore in future research.
However, parents should not worry that their child will be obsessed with materialism and individualism. The natural development of cognitive tools in terms of memory and theory of mind will lead them to value the more abstract gifts that life’s experiences offer.
Nevertheless, parents do not have to just sit and wait on their child’s natural cognitive development. There are ways to build better memories and better social skills through perspective-taking.
For example, memory for abstract experiences can be enhanced through photos and videos. Their mere presence acts as a memory cue that makes the experiences easier to remember, and thus enhances the happiness the experience gives long after the event is past.
Parents can also improve their child’s perspective-taking skills - for example, by talking about social experiences from the other child’s perspective as well - which will increase the enjoyment that experiences bring in the moment.
The bottom line is that younger children will continue to derive more lasting happiness from tangible goods compared to intangible experiences, and so toys are still good gifts for younger children.
However, as children get into their teens, experiential gifts may provide more lasting happiness than tangible toys.
Parents can perhaps move up the “crossover point” by a couple of years by increasing memory and theory of mind for experiences.
Tina M Lowrey and L J Shrum are Professors in the Marketing Department of HEC Paris. Lan Nguyen Chaplin is Associate Professor of marketing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This commentary is based on the authors’ paper Age Differences in Children’s Happiness from Material Goods and Experiences: The Role of Memory and Theory of Mind, also co-authored by Ayalla A Ruvio, and Kathleen D Vohs. Daniel Brown has been a journalist for English and French media for over 30 years and is now Journalist and Editorial Coordinator at HEC Paris.