The Way American Parents Think About Chores Is Bizarre
Children naturally want to help at a very early age—but many families wait to conscript them until that desire has faded.
The practice of paying children an allowance kicked off in earnest about 100 years ago. “The motivation was twofold,” says Steven Mintz, a historian of childhood at the University of Texas at Austin. “First, to provide kids with the money that they needed to participate in the emerging commercial culture—allowing them to buy candy, cheap toys, and other inexpensive products—and second, to teach them the value of money.”
These days, American children on average receive about $800 per year in allowance, according to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Kids, though, are usually not receiving money for nothing—the vast majority of American parents who pay allowance (who themselves are a majority of American parents) tie it to the completion of work around the house.
Parents’ preference for this setup has spawned an array of apps that let them dole out allowance money once chores are completed, and even pay for an individual chore. Homey, an app that’s effectively a digital chore chart, allows parents to issue payouts upon visual confirmation of finished chores and is used by 100,000 families. A similar app called BusyKid, which launched earlier this year and is used by 25,000 families, also lets children invest in the stock market with their allowance money. (These apps are just two of many new digital tools, including RoosterMoney, Current, and goHenry, for managing children’s money and teaching them about personal finance.)
Recently in The Washington Post, a writer distilled the argument for per-chore compensation in an article headlined “I Pay My Kids to Get Dressed, Do Homework and More. It’s the Best Decision I Ever Made.” A mother of two children with ADHD, she found it tremendously effective to induce her kids to stay on task with small payments of a dime or a quarter; she suggested other parents might find it effective to do the same. “In behavioral psychology, this is called positive reinforcement,” she wrote. “And it works.”
Does it? A range of experts I consulted expressed concern that tying allowance very closely to chores, whatever its apparent short-term effectiveness, can send kids unintentionally counterproductive messages about family, community, and personal responsibility. In fact, the way chores work in many households worldwide points to another way, in which kids get involved earlier, feel better about their contributions, and don’t need money as an enticement.
Suniya Luthar, a psychologist at Arizona State University who studies families, is skeptical of the idea of paying kids on a per-chore basis. “How sustainable is it if you’re going to pay a child a dime for each time he picks up his clothes off the floor?” she says. “What are you saying—that you’re owed something for taking care of your stuff?”
Luthar is not opposed to giving allowances, but she thinks it’s important to establish that certain core chores are done not because they’ll lead to payment, but because they keep the household running. “It’s part of what you do as a family,” Luthar says. “In a family, no one’s going to pay you to tie your own shoes or to put your clothes away.” Whatever the approach, she adds, it’s important to acknowledge that parenting is confusing and exhausting work, and it can be difficult to broker household labor agreements without ever resorting to bribery of some sort.
Luthar’s suggested approach to allowance is compatible with the regimen that the New York Times personal-finance columnist Ron Lieber outlines in his book The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money. He advises that allowance be used as a means of showing children how to save, give, and spend on things they care about. Kids should do chores, he writes, “for the same reason we do—because the chores need to be done, and not with the expectation of compensation … Allowance ought to stand on its own, not as a wage but as a teaching tool.”
This argument has its critics. Many parents may scoff at a system that tells kids the world will spit money out at them on a regular basis in exchange for nothing at all; in households that aren’t upper middle class or wealthier, such an arrangement might offend. (Lieber does account for this in his book, suggesting that parents who object to his methods might consider paying kids only for chores that solve problems they themselves identify in the household, or for periodic one-off tasks like washing a car or painting a room.)
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.”