Heather Beth Johnson, a sociologist at Lehigh University who studies families and wealth inequality, aligns more with the Lieber school of chore compensation (or lack thereof). “When we pay [kids] to do things that humans have always had to do as participants of communities and families,” she says, “it sends them some sort of a message that they are entitled to [an] exchange for these things,” as opposed to a message that they’re part of a household team and should contribute accordingly.
Johnson considers the chores-for-allowance agreement to be of a piece with a broader custom in upper-middle-class households of paying children for things like doing well in school or taking care of siblings. She says that this sort of compensation can give kids the sense that they’re entitled to rewards for fulfilling basic responsibilities. “This isn’t happening in poor families,” she says. “They’re not like, ‘If you take care of your cousins, I’m going to pay you for it.’ It’s just expected that you would take care of your cousins if your cousins needed taking care of.”
Johnson’s children—14-year-old twins and a 10-year-old—do not get an allowance. But they do get spending money from their mother as needed, as well as regular conversations about the work it takes to run a house. “Maybe my kids are just really strange,” she says, “but I really don’t have to say it more than once—I say, ‘Empty the trash,’ and they do it.”
But considering the way chores are undertaken around the world, it might be the allowance-earners who are the strange ones. David Lancy, a former professor of anthropology at Utah State University, has studied how families around the world handle chores, and he has observed a development of responsibilities in less well-off societies that looks little like the American way.
After about 18 months on the Earth, Lancy explained to me, children almost universally become eager to help their parents, and in many cultures, they’re brought in to the processes of doing housework. They may be incompetent little things, but they can learn quickly by watching. “Praise is rare,” Lancy says, “as the principal reward is to be welcomed and included in the flow of family activity.” Gradually, their responsibilities get ratcheted up according to their abilities and strength; they may start by carrying messages or small objects, and work their way up to food preparation or caring for siblings. “In effect, they ‘own’ a suite of chores which they carry out routinely without being told,” Lancy says. And they don’t assume they’ll be paid an allowance.
In an email, he made clear how this contrasts with American norms: “In our society—and I’d extend this to most modern, post-industrial nations—we actually deny our children’s bids to help. We distract them with other activities, we do our chores (meal prep) when they’re napping, we convey that their ‘helping’ is burdensome and, not surprisingly, the helping instinct is extinguished. Hence, at 6 or 7 when we think they’re ready to start doing chores or at least taking care of themselves and their ‘stuff,’ they’ve lost all desire to help out.”