Ages 10-12 (Tween)Ages 6-9HouseholdParenting StylesWork

So What about Allowances? Or, Putting My Kid on Salary

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.

*** **** ****

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.

This has a number of benefits.1024px-Dirty_dishes

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.



Raised in New Orleans, Kelly Jennings is a member and co-founder of the Boston Mountain Writers Group. She has published short fiction in Strange Horizons and The Future Fire, as well as in the recent feminist SF anthology The Other Half of The Sky. Her first novel, Broken Slate, was published by Crossed Genres. She blogs at delagar.

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  1. I will have to try that salary idea on Hipster Tween, I think it’s brilliant.
    I have so many feelings about this piece. My situation growing up was the same as yours: having room and board was my payment, and in return I got to be my parents’ house slave. I had my first job at age 15 so that I could buy what I wanted.
    I’m in an odd situation right now because HT’s father has money and I don’t. Sometimes I truly don’t have enough extra money to promise her an allowance. HT’s father’s attitude about taking care of his possessions is informed by his growing up with money and it has unfortunately devolved upon our kid — she doesn’t take care of her things because she knows they’ll be replaced. If I don’t do it because I can’t or won’t, her father usually does. I’m usually at a loss as to how I would make her understand that she is very privileged in this regard, although I have told her that if I want x things, I have to save up for it.
    I digress, but as I said, I think your idea is brilliant, and teaching your kid to manage their money early on so it becomes a habit is fantastic.

    1. Yes — that is the big problem with this plan. A parent would have to be in a position to *give* an allowance.

      I remember teaching an essay about punishment to one of my Comp classes: the author noted that poor parents very seldom took away a kid’s allowance a punishment, and speculated about why. One point that didn’t seem to occur to him was that poor parents flat out weren’t giving their kids an allowance, because poverty.

    2. Can you talk to her dad about setting a limit on what he gives her? My mother worked it out with my dad that he would send me directly the money he would otherwise send to her and that was the money I was to use for everything that I didn’t specifically earn myself. If I wanted to buy a new skirt? I had to use that money. Need gas for the car? That money. A class ring? Better be saving that money. Need to replace my CD player because I was an ass and left it out on the deck in the rain? That money. My mom and stepdad were there if I got in a real bind with something essential and I wasn’t expected to buy my own groceries or anything, but it really did teach me to be self sufficient and to budget and it helped eliminate a lot of the tension over money between my long-divorced parents as well.

      1. it’s taken a long while of back and forth conversation, but I think he’s finally gotten the idea that replacing HT’s broken things is not teaching her anything useful. she’s been using her phone with the screen broken for the past few months because she decided she didn’t like the OtterBox (which was pricey!) I got her for it. every time she complains about it, she gets the same explanation. same with the refurb laptop that hasn’t worked right since she dropped it. don’t take care of your expensive stuff that (sometimes) people have sacrificed to get for you? live with using the broken one.

        plus I was never quite sure what was the appropriate income for a 5-, 8-, or 11-year-old.

  2. I love this idea as well. A “salary” makes more sense than paying per task because then the task isn’t seen as a fair contribution to the family’s well-being. This way the child doing her part around the house isn’t seen as “help” per se, but generally taking care of one’s household. It also teaches money management, as Cassie said.

    1. Yes! And then you don’t have to spend time negotiating over each individual task, which gets annoying really fast.

      The labor contract, also, I advise. Pick two major chores — I picked dishes and laundry because they were doable — and then add a clause about “incidental” so that you can have the kids do minor tasks when asked, and you’re covered.

      I do pay her extra for big work, like mowing or whatever; but she’s free to refuse that work, too.

  3. This is pretty close to what we do as well. We casually give our 11 year old an allowance, but are both really slack about actually giving it to him and don’t strongly enforce specific responsibilities, which is something that we need to buckle down on. He does have opportunities to earn additional money above the basic allowance, but I do think that a certain amount of incidental contribution to the family should just be part of being in the family – not direct quid pro quo, but if I ask him to fill up his laundry basket and take it downstairs so that I can spend my Sunday afternoon washing his clothes, and then expect him to put the folded clothes away, that’s part of basic self care, but the serious work of maintaining a household is the responsibility of the adults. So, in short, good post!

    1. ” if I ask him to fill up his laundry basket and take it downstairs so that I can spend my Sunday afternoon washing his clothes, and then expect him to put the folded clothes away, that’s part of basic self care, but the serious work of maintaining a household is the responsibility of the adults.”

      yes, this! it makes me insane when I wash, dry, and fold HT’s laundry and put it on her bed to be put away only to find it on the floor or shoved in the closet, or (worse) right back in the hamper in its folded state. I was gobsmacked last weekend when she asked me to show her how to sort and wash clothes.

  4. Since everyone seems to agree that putting children on a salary is a good idea I feel compelled to add my – very different – opinion!

    I agree that having own money from early on is a must, so is contributing to household duties, and I see how linking these two can be efficient. But. It sends two pretty harmful messages. First, that all labour must be paid, and so only things paid are worth doing, and to follow through, the price tag on something determines its value… which is completely distorted (see brionybrains’ excellent post about why parenting is not a job). Second, paying for chores means that a. all chores are your responsibility b. all money belongs to you by definition. A family should not consist of employers and employees, it should be one unit, where each member has rights (such as allowances) and responsibilities (such as chores). Sure, parents can withdraw the allowance as punishment for not doing chores, but it should belong to the children simply because they are members of the family.

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