I admit it: getting my three sons to do household chores is, well, too much of a chore for me.
Like most parents, my mind is going in a million different directions as I move through another harried day. At any given moment, I'm trying to answer the following questions, usually simultaneously: "Who am I carpooling with for tonight's basketball practice? What time is Leo's winter cello concert? Did I pay the mortgage yet? How am I going to finish my writing assignment and get dinner started? Will I make it home before the dog pees on the oriental rug for the umpteenth time?"
The absolute last thing on my daily to-do list (besides combing my hair) is the kids' chores. And so, by 9 pm, as I try to make sense of the mayhem in my head and in my house, I resort to nagging comments like, "Daniel, pleeeease put your dirty underwear in the hamper! I've had it!" and "Whose turn is it to walk the dog?"
Every so often, I try to smarten up and offer my kids an allowance. My husband and I have gone as far as writing down specific chores for each child. When the boys were young, this seemed like a brilliant way to motivate them: "If you make your bed and clear your plate, mommy and daddy will give you an allowance!" we promised. But weeks would come and go, I would forget to enforce the rules and the boys were not so interested in allowance money. After all, how many Thomas the Tank Engine trains can you possibly buy? And, most importantly, I was never really comfortable with paying the kids to do chores. It felt like bribery; shouldn't they just do these basic tasks things without getting paid? After all, no one pays me to make my bed.
But as my children mature, I've reconsidered allowances and chores. Why? First, my children are old enough and strong enough to complete more complicated requests, like loading the dishwasher. Second, they're turning into savvy, money-conscious consumers. They're fans of sushi and Starbucks; they crave the latest Xbox and iPhone. As the years fly by, it's getting harder for me as a parent to justify paying for these increasingly expensive trips to the mall. How will they learn to appreciate such essential traits such as hard work and money management if I randomly dole out money? And how will they become productive, self-reliant adults if my husband and I do all the household chores?
I've turned to a well-known financial education expert for some guidance to create a clear-cut plan. In Raising Financially Fit Kids, family finance guru Joline Godrey makes an excellent case for starting and sticking to allowances. But she advises parents to learn an important mantra and communicate it daily to their kids: "Allowance is not an entitlement or a salary. It is a tool for teaching children how to manage money." In her view, an allowance is an essential tool to help kids become independent, responsible adults committed to saving--and sharing--their money.
Godfrey is on to something big. For most parents, allowance/chore plans fail because we miss the bigger money-management picture. We limit ourselves by tying allowance money to everyday chores, missing a huge opportunity to teach kids to budget their money. And we sabotage our own attempts to foster family unity and responsibility among our kids. Godfrey explains, "Well-meaning parents who pay for beds made, dishes cleared…are later puzzled when, as they get older, the same kids tend not to 'pull together' as part of the family unit." In Godfrey's view, allowances should be given solely for special jobs like cleaning out the basement, say, or shoveling the driveway.
And so, armed with a new attitude and a more realistic plan for allowances and chores, I've come up with a list of key tips to keep in mind:
1. Put it in writing: post the rules in a prominent location, and spell out which special chores count towards allowance and which are "everyday" tasks like making the bed
2. Limit allowance money for special jobs like cleaning the basement or shoveling the driveway: things you might pay a professional to do
3. Evaluate the system every few months: praise your teen for follow-through and consider adding new responsibilities as well as new privileges as he or she complies with the plan
4. Tie allowance to a bigger money management plan that clearly lays out how much allowance your teen can spend, save and donate
5. Be consistent: no money should be exempt from your child's money plan (i.e. part of birthday or holiday gifts should comply with the 3-part save/spend/donate rule)
6. Budget: as your teen matures, consider helping him develop a monthly budget and determine how much he can chip-in, percentage wise, to cover his monthly expenses (trips to the movies, new clothes, etc.)
7. Outside Jobs: investigate ways your child can harness his entrepreneurial spirit (i.e., starting a dog-walking service) to supplement his allowance
8. Be prepared for some push-back as you implement these rules: your kids might balk, and you may have to spend more time explaining your ultimate goal: to help him become a self-sufficient adult with a clear-eyed view of money management
9. Be Clear: be wary of communicating mixed messages with your money plan. No money should be exempt i.e., birthday gift.