To give or not to give your child an allowance -- that is the question! Actually, that is the first of many questions related to giving an allowance: How much money do you give, and how frequently? At what age do you begin? And if you have multiple children, do you give each child the same amount? For years I have paid attention when parents give their opinion on this topic, and for years we have been tweaking our own allowance system at home.
The idea that kids should not get paid for chores resonates with me. They should make their beds, keep their rooms clean, and do additional chores because they are part of a family and this is how a successful family operates: each person takes responsibility for him/herself and pitches in to keep things running smoothly. Just to be clear: There are many things children should do, like say please and thank you, eat all the veggies on their plates, and not write "wedding photo" on their parents wedding photos with permanent ink, like one of my girls did.
And yet I also see value in using an allowance (either a point system or real cash) as an opportunity to reward motivated children for doing work around the house, thus allowing them to earn and manage a little money of their own. It's a great lesson for kids to work hard for something that they really, really want.
Here is a scenario that has happened more than once in our home: one of my daughters asks me to buy something for her, and knowing that she has a stash of birthday money in her room, I ask her, "Are you willing to spend your own money on it?" If she says no, that shows me it's not that important to her, and I simply tell her that I'm not willing to spend my money on it either.
I know parents who give their teens debit cards and regularly deposit an allotted amount of money into their account -- money that is not earned. They are using an allowance as a method of teaching money management skills. The idea here is that instead of handing out money every time the kid needs a new pair of pants or wants to see a movie with her friends, she learns to be financially responsible and budgets the money for her expenses. Keeping track of transactions and making sure the money stretches between deposits can be good preparation for the real world.
I don't think any one of these approaches is right or wrong, or that there is only one way to do this. My husband, Bernie, and I have developed an always-evolving system that combines many of these ideas. At times, when one of our daughters is motivated to earn some money, we come up with a list of chores she can do and then pay her by the job. For two summers, my oldest daughter pretty much cleaned our entire house by doing one chore a day; she enjoyed earning her own money to use as she wished, and I enjoyed a clean house.
Other times, when a job needs to be done, Bernie or I ask the girls to help out. We expect them to pitch in as needed, and they will get one of my "looks" if they ask me, "Am I going to get paid for this?"
And there are plenty of times we give our kids money they haven't earned because they need money; we are the parents, and that is what parents do.
As our daughters have gotten older, we have given them more financial responsibilities, such as paying a portion of their cellphone bill. Of course, the money comes from us either way, but we think it is good for them to contribute in some way, such as baby-sitting their younger sister so Bernie and I can see a movie. (This is perhaps the best use of the allowance system, at least in our opinion!)
Allowances are not equal in our house. We give our oldest daughter, a high school freshman, a set amount of money to go with her friends after school one or two days a week and get frozen yogurt, that kind of thing. Our seventh-grade daughter goes out occasionally with her friends, so we give her money as needed. And our youngest daughter -- a third-grader -- isn't independent yet so she doesn't have a need for this kind of an allowance. I used to worry about making things even, but I have found that it's just not a realistic pursuit. Our goal is not that each child gets equal amounts of everything, but that each child gets what she needs.
Whether parents use an allowance to reward children, to teach money management skills or any combination of the above, I think that the logistics are not as important as what we are teaching our children. While the money passes from our wallet to theirs, if they are learning to have a strong work ethic, to develop a sense of gratitude, to budget money and learn to live within their means, and to contribute to the household and family, then the allowance becomes a powerful parenting tool. (And you might even get a cleaner house or a movie date if you play your cards right.)
• Becky Baudouin lives in the Northwest suburbs with her husband and their three daughters. She blogs regularly at beckyspen.blogspot.com.