ActivitiesStep Families

This Unbelievably Simple Parenting Hack May Change Your Life

Last year I married an incredible partner. You can read more about him and our family here. We’ve spent the last year and a half blending our families together (which has been at times more like tossing a zany fruit salad into a house together and hoping that it tastes good). We have had to find ways to help our children (and us) manage changes and challenges – new step families, new bedrooms, new meal time routines, personality conflicts, new schools, summer vacation hell – and to learn and grow together. We’ve had some epic fails and wonderful successes. What a ride it’s been!

0d40a9b3004dc499788f1735b4842d0cOver the summer we decided to try implementing chore charts and corresponding weekly allowances. I wish I could tell you that these things worked. Well, they did…until they didn’t – success lasted about a week before the whining and tantrums began.

Our four kids range in age from nearly four to ten. They each have their individual strengths and areas where they need help or honestly don’t have the ability to excel (we understand this and make adjustments as needed to meet our kids where they are). They also vary in levels of helpfulness from a child who would literally do anything for a hug to children who administer eye rolls and sassy responses of “I’m not doing THAT, and you can’t make me. I’m not your SLAVE!” if you suggest a chore.

Neither rewards nor threats of lost privileges seemed to work. There was so much complaining, whining, and rebellion. Weekly allowance was an obscure thing that didn’t really mean anything to them other than a number on a chart. Besides, doing chores on Monday for an allowance on Friday? Fuck that. Needless to say, as the stay-at-home parent this summer, I grew to hate making kids do chores. I would much rather just do them myself than listen to whining. And I am pregnant, so I can’t even have wine. 🙁

We were ready to give up and admit that no single system was going to be effective for everyone in our family, and then, we (or I should say, my husband) had an idea.

Disclaimer: I didn’t think for a second that this would work. And it sounded like it would be a lot of work for me. I may have actually rolled my eyes. Sorry honey. I was wrong.

Clay: What if instead of paying the kids weekly for chores, we paid them for each chore as they did it?

Me: But, then we would have to come up with a value for each chore, and some kids would get paid more because they can do more. And I would have to track it. I’m so tired. *I may have whined a lot here*

Clay: How about if we rewarded kids with quarters when we noticed them doing hard things or when they were trying something new?

Me: That could work. How about when kids are polite or kind or share or overcome a fear? That way they start to feel good about doing the right things, and we can start recognizing the positive instead of focusing on the negative all of the time.

Clay: Yeah, that sounds great. Do you have any Mason jars?

Me: (Does he even know me? Do I, jam-making goddess, have Mason jars?). I sure do!

Clay: I will have the kids decorate their jars tonight at table time.

And so began our ever evolving game of quarters.

The Basics:

  • fullsizerender-8Each child gets a mason jar labeled with their name, with a slot in the top for quarters (or nickels or dimes or pennies – totally up to your family’s capacity and your child’s willingness to accept something as currency). We picked quarters because they are easy for kids to count and use.
  • Whenever a parent catches a child doing something kind, helpful, polite, brave, caring, altruistic, challenging for them, or otherwise positive, they give them a quarter to put in their jar. This is their money that they can use for anything (subject to a parent’s approval).
  • Quarters are administered by parents only.
  • Quarters are not taken away, and parents do not threaten to take away quarters for bad behavior.
  • There are some things for which all kids get quarters – examples at our house: following the bedtime, morning or meal time routines without having to be prodded or throwing a fit, asking to help with a chore that needs to be done (but not volunteering to do something that doesn’t, because six people don’t need to feed the cats each day), being a team player, helping a sibling or a parent, using polite words, unsolicited compliments or kindness to others, etc.
  • There are other things that are specific to each kid earning quarters – because each of our kids has their own challenges. For one child this is calming down on her own, for another it’s using words to communicate, for another it’s getting her homework done without tears, etc. We reward facing challenges with positive reinforcement, and it’s working!

 The Results:

  • We noticed that our kids’ behavior was getting better (SO much better) within a week. They not only were being kinder to us and to each other. They seemed happier. I couldn’t claim that this change is 100% related to the jars, but I wasn’t going to test that hypothesis.
  • They were actually fighting over who got to do chores like taking out the trash or cleaning out the litter boxes. So, we made a chart of daily chores for each week and marked down who did what on each day so that we could give each of them a chance to help out with a variety of tasks and earn quarters.
  • Every time one child earned a quarter, the others would ask – “What can I do to earn a quarter?” If we gave them an option they didn’t like, they would have to wait for the next earning opportunity.
  • There were a few trips to the store which ended with our kids spending all of their quarters on gum balls, super balls, temporary tattoos, cheap plastic toys, and tries on the claw machine, and then feeling sad when they asked for an item that they no longer could afford. We responded  – “better save up your quarters,” which gave us our second idea. We decided to adjust our system to allow for both spending money and encourage savings for big-ticket items.

Quarters Version 2.0:

  • In addition to their main quarter jar, each child gets a second jar labeled with their name and “savings.”
  • When a child earns a quarter they can choose to place it in either their savings or their regular jar.
  • Money in their regular jar can be spent during trips to the store or for things like games and apps.
  • Money in savings is restricted as being saved towards a specific goal with a financial amount attached to it.
  • Examples in our house have included: 1/2 of a lap top (we agreed to match the other half if she saved half), expensive toys, a fish tank and fish.
  • Money in savings is tracked on a thermometer chart showing goal amount and progress.
  • Money in savings can only be removed and spent once the child has reached their goal.
Our youngest plays with his newest acquisition.

So far, in just a couple of months, three of our kids have reached their goals and made purchases from savings. They are simultaneously learning about the value of items they want (If you want a $57 dollar toy, fine, but you will have to save for quite a while to get there), how to earn and save money, and what it feels like to be able to buy something with their own money. I am tearing up thinking about how happy my four-year old was to save money rather than spend it on gum balls. He now almost exclusively puts his money in savings voluntarily and recently bought his first two goal items – a toy rocket ship and a glow-in-the-dark fish for our fish tank.

Any time one of our kids asks for an expensive toy or game, we ask in response – “Is this what you want to save for?” It’s that easy.

My advice for parents is to take this slow. Get your kids excited about quarters for random acts of kindness and then introduce the ideas of chores and/or savings. Pick a monetary amount that works for your family, makes savings goals doable and work for you minimal. All of our children can count quarters and determine how many dollars they have, without our help.

If this sounds expensive, it’s honestly no more expensive than giving allowance. We spend about the same each week as a we were on allowance (approximately $5 per kid), but our kids’ behavior has shifted from unhelpful to actually enjoyable to be around. And we no longer feel like we are slave drivers forcing our kids to do chores around the house. I am happier. Who knew?

We try not to make it about paying them for chores and make it more about acknowledge the positive or hard things they do. Just this morning I accidentally dropped my health insurance card at the store. My four-year old not only alerted me, he went and got it and said, “Mama, you don’t want to lose this. It’s important!” *heart melts* I said – “thank you” and gave out a quarter for kindness. Yesterday he and his step brother both got quarters for working together to move and straighten the rug after it got mucked up. Again, completely out of the blue, showing incredible team work, and helpful! When my daughter recently used a breathing technique to calm herself down from a tantrum, she got a quarter and a hug for doing something that is extremely hard for her. Her step sister got a high-five and a quarter when she bounded up the stairs and said – “Steph! Guess what? I did all of my homework already!” This from a child who used to weep for hours when she needed to do homework. I was so proud of her, and I told her!

Probably best of all, my husband and I have new, exclusively positive ways to engage with and build relationships with our kids AND our step kids every day. Those moments are worth way more than a roll of quarters!

I don’t believe in magic, but this is pretty close.

Images: Steph, all rights reserved.


Steph is a mom, stepmom, freelance writer, and advocate. When she's not busy writing, chasing kids around, cleaning up messes, and trying to change the world, Steph enjoys snuggling, making pies, politics, reading paranormal fiction, yoga, and fitness. A fully recovered natural parent, Steph now trusts science, evidence, and common sense to lead the way. She has been actively involved in the reproductive and women's rights movements for more than 20 years and is a passionate pro-choice feminist. Her writing can be found on Grounded Parents, Romper, The Cut, and other print and online publications

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