Should children be paid to do chores?

The latest bone of contention (“bone” of contention? Why does that make me think of the seminal opening scene in the brilliant 2001: A Space Odyssey when I hear that phrase?) in our little universe is around chores. We’ve tried chore charts, we’ve tried “gold stars”, we’ve tried family meetings where we all talk about the chores we like to do (and yes, kids like some chores in my experience), but they all end up producing another meeting of the slacker club and nothing gets done.
For years Linda and I have disagreed on whether chores should have a financial value and/or whether perhaps doing your chores produces an allowance, but now that we have separate households I can reexamine this issue and consider how to ensure that my children help keep my house clean, neat and humming along smoothly.
The question, then, is should chores have an assigned value, and should it be financial in nature?


As an adult I recognize that while some of what I do is reasonably altruistic in nature (volunteering at school, helping out the local non-profits, speaking to local community groups to help spark an entrepreneur or two, helping others be successful through answering email queries, etc) much of it is not: as a member of a capitalistic society, much of my effort goes to attaining desired rewards.
This is true in so many realms of life that I really can’t imagine the mythic Mother Teresa or similar, where they seek no rewards for any of their behaviors and simply act out of love and a desire to see others better, happier, more at peace with nary a consideration of their own welfare. (Of course, the cynical part of me says that if you’re trying to achieve positive karma in your life you too have a tangible goal, it’s just more ethereal)
So on a day to day basis, my life is made up of actions taken to achieve specific goals, be they financial (having a client pay me for a job well done), physical (going to the gym thrice-weekly to improve my tone and physical health), mental (playing with friends and laughing to keep my emotions balanced) or spiritual (hmmm… this is a more amorphous area to try and pin down). For all of us who work, there’s a simple equation:

accomplishment = reward

Given that, why not start teaching my children the same thing? I am just highly skeptical that a philosophical argument (“do it for the greater good”) or coercive argument (“do it because you’re part of the family”) with the commensurate explanation of chores being “for the good of the family” or “because everyone has to pitch in” really works. It’s a nice intellectual approach, but in my experience, kids aren’t quite ready for the adult realm of rationalizations. The result? The kids aren’t motivated to do things “for the common good” and they end up complaining and not doing their chores.
Eventually it devolves into a “stick” rather than a “carrot” and it’s all over. There’s no reason for anyone to ever do a chore if you are focused on yourself and your own world. Yeah, kids should be concerned with the welfare of the planet, yadda yadda, but I think so much of that is parental guilt being handed down like the 21st century version of original sin or something, and I just don’t find that it works. Besides, isn’t it like our parents telling us we needed to eat all the food on our plate because of “the starving children in China”?
And so, I am thinking that I want to assign a specific financial value to specific chores in my house, like $0.50 for vacuuming the carpet, $0.25 for feeding the cat, $0.50 for cleaning the litter box, etc etc. Have a chart on the fridge and every weekend sum up the “earnings” and pay them out to the children.
Is this wrong? Am I going to mess ’em up by doing this? Or is this how you motivate your children to pitch in and help around the house too?

13 comments on “Should children be paid to do chores?

  1. My thing is the poker chip system. I feel like it is a blend of both of the ideas that you present. My kids earn poker chips for things that I recognize are not easy for them…this expands beyond the realm of housekeeping too, it is for behavioral stuff too. For example, my youngest is disorganized and he has a theme of losing his hats and gloves and backpack between school and home. So he, right now, earns poker chips for bringing each of those items home from school. They earn chips for regular household chores (cleaning their room, picking up toys, helping out in the kitchen, etc) but also for things like accepting disappointments gracefully. I pay them $1 for every ten poker chips they hand in on Saturday mornings. As they become accomplished at some things, we decrease or eliminate those rewards and replace them with new ones. They both understand that their own rewards will be different than the rewards the other child gets because they are different children with different challenges. It works really well for us, so far.

  2. The problem with paying kids is that then the chores become optional if they don’t want the money. It often works better to teach chores as a necessary part of life (future roommates and spouses will be grateful), much the way we teach personal hygiene practices like toothbrushing and bathing.
    One way that works with some kids is to teach early chores to little kids, and then make the bigger chores a sign of being grown-up, as in “When you’re eight, you’ll be big enough to use the vacumn.”
    It takes a lot of training to develop responsibility, and usually it only works if a parent works beside a child for the first thousand or so times that he does the chore.

  3. Ugh. Chores. Nothing I ever did worked to make it fun/something they wanted to do. I tried it all – money, rationalization, etc. As they got older they did realize that Mom couldn’t work and take care of a big house all by herself so they knew that one morning each weekend was house cleaning – period. We did have a house cleaner come in every two weeks and that helped. I made them cook too when they were teens – they hated that, it interfered with TV or telephone time. But you have to persevere. Now they are grateful that they knew how to cook, change oil in cars, clean, etc. when they moved out on their own.

  4. Dave – I think you’ll find this issue is like politics – most people have their very strong feelings for one side or the other and and are not easily swayed by argument. I think yours was a really thoughtful and well presented point of view – we must vote the same way 😉
    My biggest caution is related to your plan to pick a dollar value for each and every item. Not only is it difficult to do (eg. what’s “brushing your teeth” worth and how does it compare with “feeding the dog”) but it’s also more likely to encourage cherry-picking at best and a mercenary attitude at worst.
    My second caution is that any plan you come up with needs to be simple to implement or it will die a quick death, despite initial enthusiasm. You’ll get busy, you’ll forget, it’ll get boring….a whole host of system killers.
    The big picture is that we’re trying to teach kids they have responsibilities – this is for their own personal growth, not just to keep the house clean. We also want them to have money so they can learn about financial responsibility and about making choices.
    EI’s idea of using poker chips is really interesting – it adds a layer between the the money and the work so it’s a less obvious connection. I also like the idea that each child is taught that “fair” doesn’t mean “the same” – that each child has different needs. But I do think the system’s still in danger of turning into “how many poker chips do I get”, especially when the kids get a bit older.
    Here’s a suggestion….we created an online system called Active Allowance which enables you to link allowances to responsibilities, but helps you teach the big picture. It’s similar to approaches suggested by experts such as Neale Godfrey and Richard & Linda Eyre. It also has the advantage of being online so it’s easy to do once you’ve set it up.
    Please drop by for a visit.

  5. Chore Wars looks cool & Clip Allowance looks interesting; I’m going to spend a little more time there to see if / how to incorporate them into what I’m doing, which is…
    …paying them for chores. I’m not implementing a real clean, true capitalist approach, as if they decide they don’t want to do a particular chore, then (based on my subjective view of the need of that particular chore) I assert that they have to do it as part of this household. The first one or two times, I might still pay them, and also warn them that if they do this again then they will have to do the chore anyway & not get paid. One of the life lessons here is that sometimes they don’t get to completely chose the nature of their circumstances, and they have to figure out how to move through that and create their circumstances in the way that they want them. I’m in the process of deciding how much to pay them for each chore, so it’s still a bit of a work in progress.
    In the cases where I don’t pay them for the chore they chose not to do, I visibly show them me paying myself (i.e. – I put the money into my “:spare change” jar), so that they can see that “their” money is lost and was received by someone else. My youngest has been the quickest to pick up on this, and when one sibling backs out of a chore, she’ll position herself to get the “extra” money for herself.
    What are we doing w/their money? Splitting it into 4 categories:
    – donation
    – college fund
    – investing
    – spending
    For the investing piece, I have set up a Sharebuilder account for each of them (http://www.sharebuilder.com/) and are teaching them about investing in the stock market. The first stock they have bought is Hasbro at $26/share (Hasbro makes most of the toys they play with, and I’ve gotten them very interested in investing in the stock market. Sharebuilder allows you to buy fractional shares of stock, so they can use much smaller amounts to own companies – which they just think is pretty cool.
    WRT separate households: great opportunity for another life lesson –> different houses / people / groups / friends / society / etc., have different rules. When you are their, if you want to “successfully participate” in that organization, you may need to adjust your behavior accordingly, in order to be part of that group. More of a macro view on a micro issue, but you get the point.
    Please post your progress, and share any tips! 🙂

  6. Have you read Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn? It may change your whole paradigm…it changed mine. Not everything thrives on the economic model, in fact, there can be unintentional negative outcomes in the long run.
    The book is well written and well documented, citing countless scientific studies. Well worth the read!

  7. I ran across this page as I was looking for parental suggestions for dealing with the chore issue. On one hand I don’t want to pay my son (almost 6) for participating in regular mantenence/self responsibility chores because I believe these things are a part of growing older ad taking on greater accountability. (Things such as making his bed, putting away his toys, bringing his dishes to the sink after dinner, putting away his dirty clothes, etc…) I also don’t want to end up with a carrot/stick situation that becomes payment arbitrary and choice negotiable as other scenarios that have been mentioned.
    This comes up because my son recently decided to take a stick to my mop bucket and banged away at it until it eventually broke. He then came to me and honestly told me what he had done. I appreciated his truthfulness and I avoided reacting with anger but I told him that his choices caused my bucket to break and now I would need to buy a new one. (Grrrr… silly expensive one with a nesting caddy…grrr) Since he broke the bucket I expected him to pay for its replacement. He would now have to hand over any money that came his way until I was payed back my $9.00. Since he doesn’t have an allowance I want to provide opportnities for him to earn money with out paying him for expected houshold contributions.
    After reading everyone’s suggestions, I am thinking that I will find extra tasks around the house that are not obligatory and his doing them would be an unexpected aid. (Maybe cleaning up leaf litter around our patio, sweeping the front walkway, washing the windows, keeping the rug in the living room straight…) We could identify them with a picture chart and if he chose to undertake one of these tasks at the end of the week he would be financially compensated. What do you all think of this? I don’t want to get to into the capitalist thing or rewarding him for things that are about personal responsibility but what if they were just opportunities to earn money that he can take or leave somewhat like taking on an odd job for extra cash?
    Any suggestions, thoughts, ideas, or random tasks that he might do (i realize this may be home specific.) As I said, he is almost 6 so the scope is limited and I would like to find things that he can do without too much assistance so that my ability to help does not affect his motivation to earn a few quarters here and there.
    I would love for some feedback.
    ~artemisia

  8. Hey Dave: So far, our allowances have not been tied to chores. We give the kids a few basic functions to do regularly (though we should increase them), plus expectations for helping when friends are coming over, etc. The allowances are to help them make choices about money, and we figured it would be too easy for them to just “opt out” of both allowance and chores. That said, I wouldn’t be opposed to putting a price tag on a few extra chores that I’d like them to do…

  9. It is not linking the allowances to chores, but allowances are used as rewards. How creative can you get if you need to reward them for each chore. A bear hug or singing praises only work if there are no other demands. I have used star-stickers to mark and corresponding coins to be put in a box with my kids, 7 and 3. Both understand this language better than hugs and kisses, because it is solid and permanent. I made chore charts involving them. We browsed the net together and they chose the designs (from kidrewardzone.com) and I wrote their chores. They found it a fun activity when they added a sticker or two more. And when they got all the stars in place, it would fetch them a well-earned trip to the park. Of course, the hugs and kisses are complementary.

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