The Price of Life, Childhood Edition

When my kids hit a bump in the road, I would do my fatherly duty of giving them a pep talk. They would respond that I had no future as an inspirational speaker, which was their way of telling me that they got the message and had moved on to the joke-telling stage. The “trauma” was past, at least for the moment. What I never did was give them a dollar and a dream. Apparently, I handled it all wrong.

During the last month of school, when I was at my wit’s end, the principal called me in to discuss my kids’ excessive tardiness, and I knew something had to change. Fortunately, she was understanding, and I left the meeting with the beginning of an idea. By the first day of school this year, I had completely transformed our lives — the mornings and the evenings.

I accomplished this by paying my kids to perform basic life tasks. In behavioral psychology, this is called positive reinforcement. And it works.

In fairness, the writer and her children had issues.

All three of us have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and we struggle with time management and executive functioning. As a result, my kids were late to school — a lot.

Not everyone has ADHD, though, if the statistics are to be believed, many do. Impairment of executive functioning makes life difficult to address, as the ordinary decisions and actions for most of us aren’t at all ordinary, even comprehensible. Is paying your kids to wake up, and again to put on clothing (do they get paid per sock, or is it one price per pair?) the means to incentivize children to “move it”? If it worked for her, that’s cool. But then, this “advice” isn’t directed exclusively to mothers and children with ADHD, but to parents in general.

“Positive reinforcement is reinforcing a positive behavior with a positive response, which makes the behavior more likely to happen in the future,” says Lauren Mosback, a behavioral specialist. “That can look like anything from verbal praise and encouragement to offering a tangible reward.”

I do both. I praise my kids for a variety of simple things they do well and reward them with money for behaviors I’m shaping.

When a child is very young, we applaud their doing tasks, say potty training, which may be “simple things” to us, but novel and difficult to them. But then, they get the hang of it and we stop. Paying them, on the  other hand, sends a very different message.

These days, American children on average receive about $800 per year in allowance, according to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Kids, though, are usually not receiving money for nothing—the vast majority of American parents who pay allowance (who themselves are a majority of American parents) tie it to the completion of work around the house.

Unspurprisinly, apps have sprung up to help parents who find managing their kids’ allowance too challenging. How there’s not an app for chewing food amazes me. But I digress. Is paying money for “positive reinforcement” argument the solution?

“And it works.”

Does it? A range of experts I consulted expressed concern that tying allowance very closely to chores, whatever its apparent short-term effectiveness, can send kids unintentionally counterproductive messages about family, community, and personal responsibility. In fact, the way chores work in many households worldwide points to another way, in which kids get involved earlier, feel better about their contributions, and don’t need money as an enticement.

There are two very different points in the above quote, one being the lessons to be taught and the other being how we undermine children’s desire to contribute to the household when they’re young, and interested in helping, then don’t understand why, when they’re older, they want nothing to do with helping.

It’s the first point, about the “counterproductive messages about family, community, and personal responsibility,” that addresses the pay children to get dressed in the morning advice.

[New York Times personal-finance columnist Ron Lieber] advises that allowance be used as a means of showing children how to save, give, and spend on things they care about. Kids should do chores, he writes, “for the same reason we do—because the chores need to be done, and not with the expectation of compensation … Allowance ought to stand on its own, not as a wage but as a teaching tool.”

Sure, rich parents can give their spoiled brats money as a teaching tool, while poorer families use that money to feed them, some scoff. But while that may be true, it has nothing to do with the lesson that would best help children, provided one can afford to teach it.

I never gave my children an allowance. I never paid them to do chores, and it never dawned on me to pay them to get dressed or comb their hair. Fortunately, it never dawned on them to ask for money, but even if they had, I would have laughed at them.

They always had chores. They were told that chores were how people lived, doing the things that needed to be done for no better reason than that. We all lived in our home and we all contributed to maintaining it, whether the routine taking out the trash or the seasonal cleaning out the garage. We had a joke in my family: why do I have to wash the dishes? Because they won’t wash themselves.

Was this the best way to raise children to be responsible, for themselves, for their loved ones, for their community and others? Beats me. But the lesson that they have no responsibility for themselves, to others, unless they get paid for it leads to a very dangerous place.

Johnson considers the chores-for-allowance agreement to be of a piece with a broader custom in upper-middle-class households of paying children for things like doing well in school or taking care of siblings. She says that this sort of compensation can give kids the sense that they’re entitled to rewards for fulfilling basic responsibilities. “This isn’t happening in poor families,” she says. “They’re not like, ‘If you take care of your cousins, I’m going to pay you for it.’ It’s just expected that you would take care of your cousins if your cousins needed taking care of.”

Buying family peace is the lazy way out. Poor families may not have better expectations of their children because they aren’t as lazy as wealthier parents, but have no choice. Yet, their “forced labor” may be the better choice than the lesson of entitlement if maturity and responsibility are the end goal. Otherwise, why would kids bother to ever leave the basement couch? It’s a living.

14 thoughts on “The Price of Life, Childhood Edition

  1. wilbur

    It’s also about learning to do things that you don’t like to do because somebody else tells you to do it, an important lesson to learn in life.

    Allowance? An allowance was something the kids on sitcoms got, and sometimes even provided the fodder for an episode.

    But I never felt like I was missing out on an allowance. Nobody I knew got one.

      1. REvers

        I got an allowance. Five bucks per week. But I had to spend most of it on lunch at school.

        I also had to milk the cow at 6:00 and 6:00. So maybe it wasn’t technically an allowance.

  2. Norahc

    I used to have ADHD….until dad took his belt off. Cured me in a hurry.

    Positive reinforcement may work…but so does negative reinforcement.

    1. SHG Post author

      Disabilities are disabilities. You can’t beat a deaf person into hearing, and real ADHD can’t be cured with a belt. Maybe the point the belt made was to be acutely aware of some particular conduct being good or bad, but let’s not go off the rails about disabilities in the process.

  3. Patrick Maupin

    I got an allowance, a quarter a week, when I was 5.

    It wasn’t tied to chores, but nevertheless it was apparently a good motivational tool. My mother was apparently worried about my development, because I didn’t know any numbers, but she swears that a month after she started the allowance, if someone asked me how much something cost, the number I gave them included the sales tax.

      1. Black Bellamy

        I got one for you. My father at one time told me I would be receiving an allowance of five dollars a week. I did not ask for one, so I was pleasantly surprised. I waited 10 weeks and asked him for 50 bucks because I wanted to buy this cool Radio Shack calculator. He acted surprised, then embarrassed, then angry. He had five bucks, but it’s hard for an alcoholic to keep fifty in his pocket. I was not punished for my impertinence and we never spoke of it again. Success!

  4. B. McLeod

    When the kids grow up, they won’t understand why employers won’t pay them for putting on their socks.

  5. Jake

    Who polishes the silver at your place now that the children are off to college?

    I had chores and an allowance. I don’t recall if they were connected but I do recall there were many things that were much easier for my single, disabled mom if we had the cash to handle them on our own when my brother and I were kids.

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