Maybe your parents were like mine.
When I was coming up, we didn’t get paid for work we did around the house.
When I say work, I don’t mean we made our beds and maybe helped Mama dust. I mean work.
From the time I was eight, I was doing dishes and helping with the laundry. From age eleven on, when my mother went back to college, I was in charge of cleaning the house, doing laundry, minding my infant brother (he was born when I was thirteen), and cooking meals for the entire family.
Interspersed with these diurnal chores, I did other work: helped repaint our house; help roof our house; mowed the lawn from time to time; cleaned and packed for freezing the shrimp my father caught out in the Gulf (an awful job – shrimp cut your hands and the cuts fester).
My brothers mowed the lawn and dealt with the household trash, as well as helping with the painting and roofing and so on.
We didn’t get paid for any of this. We got fed, and we got a roof over our heads: that was our paycheck.
My friends got allowances. Many of them also got paid for doing work around the house. Some just got money by asking for it, without having to work at all. I remember feeling vaguely resentful of this. But I also remember understanding that asking for money at home was out of the question. And I understand now what I didn’t quite understand then: that I also resented the easy life my friends took for granted, the easy access to wealth they accepted as theirs, which was never going to be mine.
Let me make this clear: I absolutely understand my parents’ position on this. No one was paying them for the work they did around the house – washing dishes, raising kids, working until midnight over the engine of a ten year old car to get up in the morning at six to get to work.
And when they had been young, no one had paid them for the work they did. (My father ran a dairy farm from the time he was ten or eleven, with only his slightly older brother for help; my mother, like me, was responsible for cooking, caring for her younger siblings, and running the household from the time she was eleven or twelve, when her mother went to work at the furniture factory.)
But still: the effect of this, on children, is to trivialize the value of labor.
Bear with me here.
In America, you can tell what we consider valuable: it is what we are willing to pay you for.
This is why when someone tells you that “Being a Mom is the Most Important Job of all!” you should immediately reply, “I agree! Let’s start paying all mothers a living wage!” and see what they say next.
When we require our children to do unpaid labor around the house – or tell them that their payment is the privilege of being allowed to eat and have a roof over their heads – what are we telling them about the value of the work they are doing?
What are we telling them about work?
We’re telling them that their labor – and labor in general – is demeaning, and not worth any compensation (because – and they aren’t too stupid to know this – obviously we would feed them and house them whether they did the dishes or not).
We’re telling them that people who labor are not worth the paycheck.
As a side note, household chores are often not divided evenly, as they weren’t around my house. That is, I did much more work around the house than my brothers. In households where work is required, girl children almost always work harder and longer than their brothers, and their work is almost always assigned less prestige; and, if payment is given for work done by children, the work girls do is paid for at a lower rate than the work boys do.
There is some evidence that this unequal treatment in assigning labor to boys and girls in childhood will lead to boys who consider girls less than equal in their later lives. How we treat labor in the household, in other words, has a real effect on our children.
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When my kid was ten or eleven, I made a labor contract with her. She does the dishes and the easy parts of the laundry, as well as doing incidental work around the house required of her. I put her on salary — $40.00 a month.
One, if she doesn’t follow through on her part of the bargain, I can dock her pay. (Long-term readers might think this goes against my No Punishment philosophy, but this isn’t a punishment, it’s a natural consequence. If you don’t work in the actual world, you don’t get paid. She can choose not to do the dishes. This is fine: I’ll do them for her. But then I take a dollar each time off her paycheck. No shouting, no recriminations, no threats. Just a consequence.)
Two, she doesn’t complain about having to do work around the house – why would she? She gets paid for it.
Three, she has money, which lets her learn to manage money.
This last one is key. When I left home, I didn’t have any real understanding of money. I’d had money, mind you, but all I understood about money was that you got it from doing as little work as possible (because I had contempt for labor, because labor was stupid and useless, see) and then you hoarded it (since you’d gotten it by this scam).
I didn’t know that you could do things with money. I didn’t know how to do things with money.
It took me a while to learn that it was all right to spend money – even good to spend money – on the things you needed or wanted. I went without decent medical care years longer than I should have, because of this; I had no idea how anyone bought a car (I rode a bike until I was thirty); or even how to shop for clothes.
Giving your kid a paycheck sizable enough that she has to figure out how to manage it will allow her to start understanding how to use money young, while she is in your household, while you can still be around to answer questions and give advice.
Research done by one company (a banking company, so okay, but still) shows that boys, getting higher pay than their sisters for work done at home, not only managed to save more (29% v. 25%), but also gained a much greater understanding of how money worked.
My kid now uses a percentage of her paycheck every month to subscribe Adobe Flash CC. She uses other parts of it to buy books from artists she likes (Ursula Vernon, Evan Dahm), or to donate to causes she loves. Some of it she saves up for big-item purchases.
“I want this,” she will say to me sometimes, yearningly. “I want THIS THING so bad.”
“Hmm,” I will say. “If you save up for X months, you could have it.”
Occasionally, I will also offer her other work, outside of her usually contracted work, for extra money.
Sometimes she saves up the money; sometimes she takes the extra work. Sometimes she decides she doesn’t want that thing so badly after all.
I contrast this with when I was a kid. I wanted things that bitterly too, but since I never had any money at all, what I learned was that the world was filled with doors that would always be shut to me, irrespective of the amount of work I did.
That’s really not such a great lesson to teach a kid at twelve, in my opinion.