Teaching children responsibility is a primary task for parents. The question of whether or not an allowance should be paid for completing chores requires parents to consider training in two areas simultaneously: responsibility for work and responsibility for money.
As a recent Atlantic article points out, “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.” With new apps to organize paying kids per chore, allowances have obviously advanced beyond the dollar-a-week payments of my own childhood. There’s not necessarily one right answer to the question of whether completion of chores should be tied to monetary reward.
I know parents who have used allowance as compensation in effective ways. On the surface, at least, simply granting an allowance could lead to a sense of entitlement. And unhitching it from chores raises the question of how to incentivize kids to actually complete them. Even in light of these challenges, our family chose the minority approach: We decided not to tie allowances to chores. If you’re considering this option, I offer our experience as a snapshot of how (and why) we chose it.
We set clear expectations for what the kids were responsible for (for example, unloading the dishwasher, doing their laundry, and so on), and then we held them to the list.
If a chore wasn’t completed in a timely or thorough manner, we gave another deadline along with an additional chore. The longer noncompliance occurred, the more unsavory the additional chores became. It was a pretty effective strategy that almost never went beyond about two rounds. Let’s just say no one wanted to clean the baseboards. Ever. (I once asked my youngest what his least favorite chore was, and he fired off “baseboards” before I even finished the question.)
Allowance Is for Extras
Allowance was something we just gave. It was given in an amount appropriate to their age, increasing as they got older, and going away once they were old enough to earn money by working outside our home (for example, babysitting or lawn-mowing).
They were free to use their allowance, and any other savings, at their discretion to purchase wants. As parents, we committed to cover their needs. If a child needed a new pair of shoes, I would spend enough to cover the need—store-brand sneakers. The child could contribute the difference in price if they wanted a nicer pair.
We saw allowance as an opportunity for them to learn self-control and the difference between needs and wants. But we didn’t treat it as compensation.
Work for Hire
We did offer to pay for certain jobs that wouldn’t be categorized as everyday chores. If a child needed extra money, and if the job was something we would hire someone to do or something we didn’t have time to do ourselves, we would offer the chance to earn.
Each time we had house guests, my oldest daughter cleaned the guest room to earn money for a trip she was taking. I was so sad when she met her goal because the job fell back to me again, and I have a bad attitude. I started leaving travel brochures on her pillow.
Contribution vs. Compensation
A few years ago, I met pastor Tom Nelson, a man who has devoted quite a bit of time to examining the relationship between faith and work. He articulated a principle that I hadn’t been able to put into words, a framework for how the believer should think about the work he or she does.
He said that work ought not to be primarily about compensation but about contribution. As those whose work is ultimately done for the glory of God, we ask “How much can I contribute?” before we concern ourselves with “How much will I receive?” Think how differently the world would function if everyone regarded work through this lens.
Work ought not to be primarily about compensation but about contribution.
This is why in our home we didn’t tie allowance (compensation) to chores (work). Instead, we explained to the kids that their contributions to the upkeep of domestic order are absolutely essential. We weren’t merely trying to train them to obey or to be responsible; we actually needed them to share the burden of work for our family to flourish. It wasn’t an overstatement.
When our kids were still in the home, my ministry responsibilities required me to be gone 26 weeknights a year. I also traveled occasionally for speaking. Jeff and I explained to the kids that they were acting as ministry partners by keeping the house in order when I couldn’t be there. It materially lightened my load (and Jeff’s) when everyone did their part.
Rather than resent their responsibilities, the kids came to see them as a source of the best kind of self-esteem: They knew their contributions were both needful and deeply valued.
And we lived happily ever after in a spotless house where no one ever complained about chores or spent money frivolously.
Okay, not exactly. But we did manage to keep the focus on contribution rather than compensation.
Joy of Contributing
When our kids began to plan for their futures at college and beyond, I was encouraged to see my almost-adult children’s hopes: “I want to make a difference teaching science,” or “I want to help make green energy a viable option.”
I certainly hope my kids will end up with jobs that pay a fair wage, but more than that, I hope they will end up with jobs that allow them to contribute joyfully, working as unto the Lord (Col. 3:23). To that end, we sought to make our home a place of joyful contribution—perhaps not joyful in the moment (when the cloth is on the baseboard and the knees are bent), but joyful in the final analysis, knowing that every good effort matters. And every worker is a treasured child.