This is a theory that I have read again and again in many parenting books and magazines. It made sense to me, and so I incorporated it into our family's allowance program. I decided to make my children's allowance based on their age, rather than household chore performance. Our three children received a monthly allowance of one dollar per year of age. Helping around the house was encouraged, but not required. It was my intention to instill a sense of cooperation and family teamwork in my children. Once in place, I concluded, they would willingly and spontaneously pitch in and do the dishes, pick up their toys, or help with the laundry.
My goal with the allowance was strictly to help them learn how to manage money. When we went to the stores, they needed to look at the price tags, allow for sales tax, and then go to the cashier to complete their transaction. I was also trying to teach them how to save money. As soon as they could sign their name, I took them to the bank so they could open a savings account.
My money management goal progessed reasonably well, although we're still working on the saving money part. The helping around the house plan, however, was a total flop. The kids helped around the house whenever they were inspired to, which was so infrequently that I was usually overwhelmed with delight when they did. If I asked for help, I regularly got arguments or complaints - or both! Since it was easier to do it myself than to debate the issue, I often went ahead and cleaned up their messes. If I told my children to clean up an obvious "kid mess," they would each give me their version of the "I didn't do it, so I won't clean it up" argument.
In some ways, I think I preferred doing it myself. I could be assured it would be done the way I liked it, and I didn't have to nag anyone. Also, when I was cleaning the kids' bedroom, I could throw out a lot of junk. If they were there helping, everything I had tossed into the trash would have been pulled right back out. Over the years, however, it began to seem like I was being taken for granted. At first I thought it was my imagination, but I soon confirmed that our house was getting messier faster after each cleaning. My family had gotten so used to me cleaning up after them, that they began to stop cleaning up after themselves altogether.
Every so often I would get fed up, go into my kids' bedroom with a large trash bag, and begin throwing everything on the floor into the trash. In response to their panic and outrage, I would tell them that if they really valued these items, they would treat them better. If they dropped them on the floor and walked on them, that sounded like trash to me. After everyone calmed down, I would tell them that I just needed some help with the housework. We would go through the bag together and separate out the real trash from their more precious possessions. Scenes like this would elicit help from them for about a day and a half. Then they would forget and return to their former ways.
When I couldn't take it anymore, I went on strike. I refused to do any more housework until I started getting some help. This caught everyone's attention. Within a few hours I saw some action. "Boy, Mom really means it this time," was the feeling I was reading from my family. After a few days, I came off my strike, but still refused to do more than my share.
I realized that a permanent solution needed to be found. I didn't like being on strike, because I couldn't stand being in a messy house. And if I kept going on strike all the time, it wouldn't make nearly the impression it had the first time.
Since my kids were finally old enough to discuss a problem and try to work out a solution, I sat them down and asked for their ideas. Through our discussion, I found that they would rather have a chore chart where their allowance was based on the number of chores they completed. They also wanted to be paid weekly, rather than monthly.
I was open to any workable ideas for solving this problem, but it still bothered me to pay my children for doing basic household tasks. While discussing this dilemma with a co-worker of mine, she pointed out that while the money initially motivates the child to do the chore, eventually the child has helped out so often that it actually becomes a habit.
This reasoning began to make sense to me. That, combined with the fact that I was so desperate I was willing to try almost anything, made me decide to give it a shot. I drew up a chore chart for each child and bought some stars. Each kid had four tasks to choose from over the course of the week. Each week I planned to change the tasks to give them some variety. Helping each other was allowed, but only one person got the credit. The amount of their allowance was based on their individual performance. If they helped out a lot, they had the potential to earn far more money than their previous allowance rate. This realization was especially enticing to my eight-year-old.
The first week on the chart was great. I got help around the house in a quantity that I had never seen before, and the kids were thrilled with the amount of allowance they received at the end of the week. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm was very short lived. By the second week they were back to their old pattern of making a mess and assuming Mom would clean it up.
I was on the verge of frustration again, when I suddenly realized my mistakes. For years I had been working to make our lives more cooperative and less competitive. Having just finished the book No Contest: A Case Against Competition by Alfie Kohn, my previous beliefs were confirmed that we can accomplish much more, and get along better, by working cooperatively rather than competitively. My first mistake was that the chart I had made up was definitely competitive. In fact, after the first week my oldest daughter had pointed out how many more stars she had received than her younger sister. My younger daughter gave up even trying, because she felt she would never be able to keep up with her older sister.
My second mistake was limiting my children's freedom of choice. If the tasks I had assigned them were things they didn't like at all, they would decide not to do anything. My third mistake was making the chart too complicated. I had different value amounts for the chores, and on their "daily chores" task, I had lumped six items into one. These were things like brushing teeth, being helpful, making your bed, etc. If they didn't do all of them, they didn't get credit for any of them.
So I set to work on making the "new, improved" chore chart. Competition had to be eliminated, freedom of choice needed to be expanded, and the whole chart needed to be simplified. The result was one cooperative chart for all three children. There are thirteen tasks to choose from, plus a wildcard task that can be anything else they come up with that's helpful. When a chore is completed by any one of them, or any combination of two or three of them, they get one star on their chart.
At the end of the week, the stars are counted, multiplied by ten cents per star and divided by three. My oldest daughter does the math each Thursday night. They each get the same amount of money on their allowance "payday," and that amount is based on the results of their combined efforts.
The only concern I had regarding this type of a chart was if one or two children ended up doing all the work and the remaining child(ren) didn't help at all. I soon realized, however, that the hardworking child had a choice. She could either give up and abandon her allowance, or she could learn how to elicit cooperation from her siblings. As it turns out, we have not had a problem with this at all.
After two months on the coooperative chore chart, our whole family has deemed it a success. Rather than worrying about whose chore it is and who will get the star, my kids will work together to set the table, do the dishes, or bring the laundry downstairs. They put stars on their chart together, count their stars together, and share equally in their earnings at the end of the week. They still have disagreements, but these have actually lessened since we started this new system. There is much more teamowrk and cooperation taking place in our house than I have ever seen before. After seeing this chart in action, I see now that there is a sense of fairness that comes from being compensated for the effort you put forth. It's also nice to have your achievements acknowledged.
The final selling point for this new system came when I recently asked my daughter to empty the dishwasher. Without so much as a word of complaint, she bounced into the kitchen, opened the dishwasher, and began putting away the dishes. After a minute or two, she paused and asked, "Do I get a star for this?" "Of course you do!" I said. The fact that the star didn't cross her mind until she had already begun working convinced me that my co-worker had been right. To respond positively to a request for help with a household chore was already becoming a habit.
This article was originally published November 1993 in SLO County Parent newspaper.