When I was about 10 years old, I sat down at the kitchen table with my mother and my aunt, who was an arbiter for a prominent union, in order to negotiate a contract for household chores. After years of earning two dollars per week for an indeterminate amount of chores, it was time to renegotiate the contract. The specific chores were outlined in detail, and I walked away from the negotiating table earning more than $20 per month. A few months later, I had more money for comics and candy than I thought possible. I broke my contract, because what 10-year-old isn’t that shortsighted?
Early in my daughter’s life, I used household chores in place of a timeout. When the time came to make the transition from chores-as-punishment to chores-as-a-responsibility, I wondered if paying her wasn’t the best way to motivate that transition. It never really worked. My daughter is entrepreneurial. When she was in third or fourth grade, she would sell pencils, erasers, knickknacks, and even her own clay sculptures. It was far better work than chores. Still, she’s also a very empathetic person. If she didn’t do something I asked, I would often do it instead. After a few moments, she would almost always offer to help, motivated either by guilt or a good nature.
Paying your children to do chores can be a valuable lesson about earning money, but because we’re not going to “fire” our children it can often be ineffective. At a dinner party recently, I overheard my friend Dagni and her daughter Athena discussing her daily “point total.” At a conference, Dagni encountered a parent who—in order to get his children to “stop squabbling”—instituted a system whereby the kids would earn or lose points dependent on their behavior. When Athena started asking for a Kindle Fire, Dagni rather ingeniously adapted the point system so that her daughter can “earn” the present.
This, in my opinion, is far preferable to paying children for household chores outright. Children could start the day out with a certain point value. If assigned household chores go undone throughout the day, points are subtracted. Dagni uses three points per day, meaning that she is able to get a lot of distance out the mere threat of point-subtraction. However, a higher amount of points can allow for parents to take points away like a Hogwarts instructor.
The points can then be cashed in for gifts or rewards, much better than actual cash for parents whose children have inexpensive tastes. Because the points are intangible, unlike cash, taking them away from kids can still sting, but they won’t feel as if they were robbed by their own parents. Ultimately though it is just a motivating tool. The important thing parents must instill in their children is that the real benefit of doing household chores is how much it helps the family. It should bring you together rather than be another wedge.
Do you reward or pay your kids for chores? How?