I’d been a parent for about six days when I was given my first book on parenting (as opposed to just baby care). After reading it a year later, it seemed nothing short of a miracle that I turned out to be a (semi-)productive member of society and not a money-grubbing sociopath. According to this book, one of the many colossal mistakes my own mother made when raising me was tying my allowance to doing chores.
This is a hot topic in parenting circles, with the pendulum clearly swinging toward not tying allowance to chores. Proponents of divorcing the two say that connecting them makes children expect a reward for everything (i.e., they develop a “what’s in it for me?” mentality); that there will come a day when the child refuses to do his chores because he doesn’t need the money; and that helping out with the household is just something its members should be expected to do—not get paid for.
I considered these arguments. Then I considered my children. I decided the arguments were bogus. Here’s why:
- Your kids don’t have the same priorities you do. Proponents of separating allowance and chores say that things like keeping a room clean should have its own reward—the satisfaction of a room where you can find everything. That sounds nice, but, unfortunately, my two kids don’t give a fig if their rooms are clean or not.
I actually asked my 5-year-old, “Don’t you prefer when all your toys are put away and you can find everything?”
“No,” he answered. “I like having them all out where I can see them.” He also described what you real moms already know: that just because he’s done playing with something for now doesn’t mean he’s done playing with them. For example, before lunch one day, Frankie had been playing with his Batcave, and each action figure was in a specific place—a place that was meaningless to me but had great meaning for him. After lunch, he played not with his Batcave, but with blocks. At some random point, he abandoned the blocks and went back to playing with the Batcave. Did he put away the blocks when he switched to the Batcave? Of course not.
When I walked into his room, all I saw was a mess to be cleaned up; he saw a playroom full of his favorite things, suspended in time, just as he wanted them. Does that mean he shouldn’t have to clean up? No. But to expect him to clean up and consider that his own reward is wishful thinking.
- Your child didn’t get the memo. One new thing I’ve seen experts suggest is to not pay kids for regular chores–like setting the table for dinner or dusting the living room furniture–but paying them for things you’d pay outside people to do, like washing the car. That might make sense to you, but it’s semantics to a kid. He didn’t get the memo that setting the table is an “expected” chore and that washing the car is something you’d pay someone else to do; both tasks fall under the general category of “Things I Don’t Want to Do and Don’t Care if They Get Done or Not.”
- The Day of Reckoning Cuts Both Ways. Experts warn of the day when your child says to you, “I don’t need money this week so I’m not going to set the table/do the dishes/take out the garbage.” Then you’ll rue the day you ever tied allowance to doing chores! But there’s actually a simple answer to that dilemma: Let your kid skip out on the chore—and the allowance—that week. Then, one week when you happen to be able to do the table/dishes/garbage, say to your kid, “Sorry, no allowance this week. I don’t need you to do the chores this time.” When all the dust settles (so to speak), you can have a real discussion with your child about how the world works: Just as, say, in an office job, you work 40 hours a week regardless of the workload and get paid the same salary whether it’s a slow time or a busy time, so, too, will you give her her allowance whether or not you have the time to do the chores yourself—as long as she honors her “contract” and does the chores even when she doesn’t need the money.
- Kids are expected to do things besides chores. I admit, the experts had me worried with the prediction that tying allowance to chores makes kids expect a reward for everything in life. And I guess that might be true if you paid them for everything, but that doesn’t really happen. Just listen to yourself for half a day and see how many things you ask your child to do that you wouldn’t consider “chores.” You ask her to get the door for you when your hands are full of groceries, help tidy up before company arrives, assist a younger sibling with his seatbelt. She doesn’t get paid for any of these things, but she’s expected to do them.
- Tying allowance to chores makes your life easier, and at least one study says it can be beneficial.
I can’t tell you how much easier—and more pleasant—our lives have gotten since I started giving my 5-year-old an allowance for doing chores, with the stipulation that they must be done without arguing or complaining. The first time, I gave him the money (75 cents—enough to buy a rubber alien from the machine at A&P, but not enough to break my bank) right after he did the chore, so that he could feel the connection between the chore and the money. Now he gets 75 cents weekly. Not only does he do his chores without complaining, but he takes great pride in them.
A couple months into it he started grumbling, so I said, “You’ve been doing such a great job at your chores, I think you need a raise soon.” He asked what that was, and I explained, promising that if he continued to do such a good job without complaining for another month, I’d up his allowance to a dollar. You can’t imagine how that invigorated him. And isn’t that a good life lesson—that when you do your job well, you’ll be appreciated? And it was a good reminder to me, too, (should I ever reenter the workforce) that the way a manager gets productive employees is to show appreciation.
Another benefit is that I really never buy my son toys anymore. When he says he wants something and asks if he can have it, the answer is, “Sure. Just keep doing your chores, save your money, and you can buy it yourself.” He now has enough of a concept of money that he understands that buying something like the Imaginext Eagle Talon Castle will take a lot of shiny quarters, and it’ll probably have to wait for his birthday; but he also understands enough to know that he can buy something from the machines at A&P every week and blow all his money, or save it for a few weeks and buy something like a new Webkinz.
And get a load of this study, which says that an unconditional allowance is the worst option. An allowance tied to chores is better, but only if the allowance is accompanied by a discussion of the family budget. (If there’s no such discussion, no allowance at all is a better option.)
So go ahead and give your kids an allowance for doing their chores! Just be sure to put it in context. I promise, your children won’t turn into money-grubbing monsters who refuse to do anything unless it’s for a buck. Well, maybe they will, but not because of this.
More by NJ Family's Real Moms of NJ Blogger, Renee Sagiv Riebling: