The Chores & Allowance Question: Why We Shouldn’t Pay Our Kids to Help

My four-year-old son, Mark, has begun to help cleaning up the kitchen

When my daughter Sofia wrote a few weeks ago about how allowance works in our house, she opened some questions.  The most important being: is allowance a payment for chores?  The short answer is no, but the long answer is more interesting.

Why Paying Kids to Help Doesn’t Work

When my kids were little, I learned that their interest in money was inconstant.  One day they might jump at the chance to earn a quarter by sweeping the kitchen; other days, they might just want to keep playing what they were playing.

The problem with tying chores to money is that it’s too easy for a child to opt out. If we offer $0.25 every time a child cleans his room, when he says, “No, thanks, I don’t need that $0.25 today, you can clean my room,” then we’re stuck.  Not only do we get a messy room, but our kids lose out on a chance to learn about money.

So when I needed help that was consistent and sustainable — and having baby number three was the turning point — I didn’t bring money into the equation.  I didn’t want to be disappointed when my daughters said, “No, thanks,” so I made “no” not an option.

We Can Expect a Lot from Our Kids — Without Ever Bringing up Money

Virginia picks tomatoes and kale for a dinner she will help make.

My daughters started helping me with cleaning the entire house — from bathrooms to living rooms — when they were only five and seven. I instructed them a few times, and for difficult areas like the bathroom, I wrote up a how-to sheet.

Now ten and eight years old, Sofia and Virginia are still helping me with major cleaning chores, and as you can see from the pictures, my four-year-old son Mark is getting in on the action. (And he’s quite proud about it.)

Ironically, the most difficult part of this whole process is deciding to require children to help and committing to it.  I totally get that asking kids to pitch in doesn’t come naturally. So many factors work against us in our affluent and child-centered society, and frankly, this old-fashioned kind of lifestyle may not appeal to everyone.

I didn’t grow up helping out a lot, so how did I end up with a family of little worker bees? I’ve given the “how” a lot of thought, and tomorrow I explain more at Parentables in Why My Elementary-Age Kids Help Me Clean the House.

Chores are a Part of Everyday Life, They’re Not Practice for a Real Job

Mark mops the floor after breaking the rules and walking around the house with a dripping popsicle. Chores can also be used as a natural consequence.

I don’t see chores as a way to teach kids how to earn money.  That may come down the line, but I think what comes first is teaching them responsibility. I don’t know anyone who gets paid to brush their teeth or to fold their own laundry. I also don’t know many bosses who tell their employees, “I’ll pay you $50 if you write this memo.”

Doing a good job is something that we should expect of ourselves and our children because it’s the right thing to do. Asking children to complete tasks without a monetary reward allows them to experience the inherent satisfaction in doing a job well.

Don’t you feel kind-of good when you see a room go from messy and dirty to tidy and clean?  I know I do. There can be something fun about working, and my kids have learned that too.  They may whine and complain at first, but like adults who exercise, once they’re in the zone and especially when they see concrete results, they feel proud.

Why Allowance Should Not Be Used as a Reward (or Punishment)

Sofia divides her allowance by percentage into Spend, Save, and Share.

One time my kids drove my husband crazy, and he docked their allowance. In the heat of the moment, all parents grasp for punishments that we hope will squelch bad behavior.  But there was something dispiriting about taking away the allowance; it was almost like a break of trust.

My kids have come to count on those few dollars a month, and it helps them plan for the future.  “In three more months, I’ll have enough in Share to help save an Arctic fox,” Virginia will say.  It’s hard to mete out any kind of punishment for talking back or being mean, but I’d much rather make my kids go to bed early, skip screen time, or clean out the car, than take away their little allowance.

Just as I expect my kids to help as a part of life, I have come to see allowance as a similar non-negotiable commitment — on my part.

Chores are Good for Kids; Allowance is Good for Parents (and Vice-Versa)

I confess that the whole reason I started giving allowance was to stop the begging every time we’d walk into a store. Now that my kids have their own money, pleading has almost disappeared. What’s more, with the simple act of giving segmented allowance, I feel like I’m teaching them self-discipline and delayed gratification, without doing much of anything.  It’s a system that regulates itself.

Expecting children to help by setting up a system of family chores not only makes for a functional, tidy, and harmonious household, but, by asking children to help, we are also showing them that they are essential and needed and that we have confidence in their capabilities.

Even if families don’t ask their kids to help much around the house, I still think allowance is a useful exercise.  If our schools and universities are not teaching kids how to manage money, where else are they going to get that training?

These conclusions about chores and allowance did not come to me in the middle of the night while holding my first-born. As I hope I have shown you, I am always living and learning, and changing as our journey evolves. Because cooperating and intentional allowance seems to be bringing our family closer and making our children stronger, I wanted to share that with you.

Have you tried a system of family chores? If you’d like to but haven’t, what obstacles are you facing? Let me know in the comments.

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22 comments

  • Andre July 6, 2013, 6:13 am

    I have a homework to writing an essay about allowance. I could done it well because of this website. THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!

    Reply
  • Thomas March 10, 2013, 8:58 pm

    But in reality, no one would want to do work without rewards now would they. Just put yourself in this situation, would you want to do chores, while receiving nothing in return? True, chores are something every child has to do. But is there something wrong with making the process a little “fun”? Kids don’t need encouragement, they need something physical. Because I know I wouldn’t take a little encouragement as a reward for cleaning up the entire house. And plus, if your child is currently in school, by telling your child to do chores while receiving nothing in return is very hard. Because now they’re in school, they want to catch up with other kids that have awesome things. So by not giving your children allowances, is like telling them not to be a kid. every child wants things, so they want money. And by not giving them allowances, a sense of stealing will develop in their mind. now do you really want that to happen?

    Reply
    • Amy March 11, 2013, 10:28 am

      Hi Thomas,

      If you read the post, you will see that my kids do get an allowance, but it is not a “payment” for doing chores.

      Reply
  • Cara July 27, 2012, 9:12 pm

    At what age do you recommend beginning an allowance? I have a three year daughter and think she may be a little too young. I love your spend/save/share system, so I’m excited to start this with her as soon as it’s developmentally appropriate.

    Reply
    • Amy August 1, 2012, 9:12 pm

      Hi Cara,

      You could probably start as early as three, but I think it all might be more meaningful by age four, and surely by age five. Since you’re already excited about it, however, it might be fun to go ahead and start now. Then when your daughter figures it out for real, she’ll be so excited to have all that money collected.

      Amy

      Reply
  • Leecy July 26, 2012, 8:44 pm

    thanks for this post… I have been starting to think about how we were going to do the whole chores and allowance thing as the boys get older. Im a big fan of them not being connected!

    Reply
    • Amy August 1, 2012, 9:13 pm

      Hi Leecy,

      Im glad you’re on the same page!

      Amy

      Reply
  • Kerry @ Made For Real July 26, 2012, 12:37 pm

    Yes, I agree with so much here. Our biggest problem is the consistency aspect of deciding what qualifies for a monetary reward (or part of “allowance”) and what is just plain expected as being part of the family.

    Like you said:
    {I don’t see chores as a way to teach kids how to earn money.  That may come down the line, but I think what comes first is teaching them responsibility. I don’t know anyone who gets paid to brush their teeth or to fold their own laundry. I also don’t know many bosses who tell their employees, “I’ll pay you $50 if you write this memo.”}
    ~ YES! And I think this is where it gets tricky for a lot of people. That fine line.

    Reply
    • Amy August 1, 2012, 9:16 pm

      Hi Kerry,

      I know, it can be a tricky question, and I think each family may need to try out various systems of their own. Regarding deciding what is a regular chore and what is an extra one, for which kids might earn money: we set up regular schedules and systems so that everyone knows what is expected of them. The same chores are done every day, every week. Anything above and beyond the normal is fair game. Sometimes my kids will do it “for free,” sometimes they enjoy making some extra cash for their Moon jar.

      Hope this helps,
      Amy

      Reply
  • leisa July 26, 2012, 11:39 am

    What a great practice! I wish I had read this when my kids were little. I have tried money for chores, but it did not work for us. Requests for help became bargaining and money issues which did not sit well with me. So now they do chores but get no allowance. I think the allowance does have the many benefits you explained above. I’m sure my kids would agree. Thank you for your thoughtful insights on this important topic.

    Reply
    • Amy August 1, 2012, 9:18 pm

      Hi Leisa,

      I agree that mixing the two can get sticky. I don’t like all the negotiating either, and so far, our system has eliminated that. The key is to expect the chores to be done, no matter what. It’s just a part of life, and consequences ensue if they’re not done. Similarly, allowance is my responsibility, no matter what.

      I think it’s a good pact.

      Thanks for writing in,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Elizabeth Carmody July 26, 2012, 10:06 am

    It is a matter of creating a habit and being a contributing member of the family. You match the job to the ability and over time as you rotate the jobs a child develops a level of sufficiency that can easily transfer to adulthood. None of this business that certain chores are only for girls or boys. And consider how much of a blessing it will be to the spouses of your children to have a mate who is familiar and proficient in the many tasks needed to run a household.

    Reply
    • Amy August 1, 2012, 9:20 pm

      Hi Elizabeth,

      You are so right: it will be great that our children, no matter what gender, will eventually be responsible guests, roommates, partners, and spouses.

      Thanks for writing in,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Kelly July 25, 2012, 11:38 pm

    I agree that allowance should not be tied to chores. I resisted paying allowance for years, though because I knew it would be too hard for me to have cash on hand to actually pay them. A friend suggested an on-line money app. There are lots out there, but I’m using Money Trail. I set it up so a certain amount is deposited into each child’s accounts (save, spend, share) weekly. It is automatically “deposited” from the bank of mom. When we are out shopping, they ask how much they have in their accounts and I can look it up on my smartphone. It saves a lot of gimmies. I know it’s not perfect that they don’t see the cash. Each year they pick a charity to donate their “share” funds and start over. And I make an annual deposit in their real bank accounts for the “save” balance. I still to need to work on motivating them to help with chores, though!

    Reply
    • Amy August 1, 2012, 9:21 pm

      Hi Kelly,

      I’ve never met anyone who uses an online app for managing allowance, even with the three categories. I think there are pros and cons to both systems, as usual. Thanks for sharing your experience!

      Amy

      Reply
  • Ebony July 25, 2012, 10:40 pm

    appreciate this reflection, as well as the previous article by sofia. we are one of those families that pays for chores instead of giving allowance. our aim is to teach our kids how to earn and budget money. we have seen some success with this approach, although not as much as we’d like. your family’s perspective has definitely given us some food for thought!

    Reply
    • Amy August 1, 2012, 9:23 pm

      Hi Ebony,

      I appreciate your honesty. No system is perfect, and as you say, yours is more about teaching how to earn money and budget it. Those are valuable skills too.

      Thanks for writing in,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Reid July 25, 2012, 3:42 pm

    I appreciate your revealing the philosophy (and trial and error) behind your system of chores and allowance. My sons, ages 4 and 6, don’t really “get” money right now. If we give them coins, the little one is as likely to play with them as ask to put them in his bank. Actually, his big brother does this, too, so we keep their banks in a place out of reach of kids. But then we parents are the ones to keep track of the contents, add found or gift money to them, etc. In theory, we’d like to instill the responsibility and community spirit that doing chores engenders; in practice, we probably need a system and haven’t worked it out yet. It’s more or less the same with allowance: We need a system but haven’t figured one out.

    Reply
    • Amy August 1, 2012, 9:28 pm

      Hi Reid,

      It’s often the system that is missing, and sometimes it takes several hours with a few resources and a pencil and paper, plus a family meeting to get one going. But once you get the first system going, you are over the biggest hump. Things will always be changing as your kids get older and your family’s needs change, but I think it’s nice to start early before kids start realizing that not all their friends are doing chores.

      If you start a chore system first, the allowance and money thing might be more understandable later. The kids might associate their helping out with the (indirect) reward of getting some money in their bank to spend on fun things. Just a thought.

      Amy

      Reply
  • Sara Tetreault July 25, 2012, 12:57 pm

    Amy, we’re a big time allowance pay out family! But, I also don’t buy my kids much clothing (shoes and coats, yes, just about all else, no) because they’re responsible for buying it all. Same with gifts (family and friends) and going places or school dances, etc. We began when they were young and kept going each year with “ok, now you get to buy shirts and shorts along with sock and undies.” We break it down by “allowance” chores and “community” chores because living in our home means you get to help. You’re smart to start when kids are little, too, when it’s second nature for them and dare I say – they enjoy it? I haven’t cleaned a bathroom, dusted, vacuumed, taken out trash/recycling, cleaned a chicken coop, done my kid’s laundry, etc. in years – and they’re 13 and 15. My kids will have these life skills to help them later but it helps me now!
    Sara Tetreault´s last post ..Sewing Machine Tune-Up

    Reply
    • Amy July 29, 2012, 3:47 pm

      Hi Sara,

      Wow, I need to hear more about your systems! I’m very impressed with how much money and budgeting you entrust to your kids. And letting them buy all their clothes with their allowance is amazing. I’m sure they are learning so much about comparison shopping, impulse buys, and how to make it all add up.

      I’m also very interested in how much your kids do around the house, and how you divide the chores into allowance chores and community chores. You’ll have to write a guest post for me sometime. ;-)

      Amy

      Reply

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