My wife and I have always wanted our four children from an early age to develop a sense of responsibility and eventually an actual work ethic to prepare them to go out in the world someday with a healthy understanding of how things work. This process, I think, should begin early by teaching 2 or 3 year old to clean up toys when they are done with them. You build on it later by having your kids as young as 3 or 4 begin doing simple chores such as getting the mail. Still later as chores become routine and the work becomes heavier, you can offer your kids an allowance as an incentive.
Here’s how we did it:
CHORES: There are a lot of things that small kids can do to play an active role in keeping the household running. I started with having my kids at four years old … wash the dishes. One washed and one dried while Dad supervised. The point was not to produce a sparkling rack of gleaming dishes, but rather give them a task they had to complete. If they missed a spot or two, it didn’t matter because the dishes were headed for the dishwasher anyway. I found it interesting to watch and see how much time my three and four year olds spent playing in the water and how much time they spent working. As they got older, naturally, the work-to-play ratio went up and that was a sign to me and my wife that they were ready for more responsibility. From this, I hope they began to learn that life is indeed 95% fun, but there was work to be done 5% of the time as well.
By the time the kids advanced into elementary school, the difficulty of their chores advanced as well. My wife came up with the idea of Saturday morning house cleaning in which each kid was given about 45 minutes worth of work appropriate to their age. My wife’s gameplan called for my oldest to vacuum the living room, family room and the five bedrooms, the second child to dust and wash windows, the third child to empty trash cans and Dustbuster the carpeted stairways. By the age of 10, my oldest son had moved up to moving the lawn while his younger siblings pulled some weeds in the yard.
Because we started early, it is now easy for us to enlist our kids in work around the house with a minimum of griping. All I have to say is, “Can someone do the dishes” and someone will usually volunteer. They have become useful inside and outside the house changing burnt light bulbs, making a fire in the fireplace (with supervision), pumping gas at the gas station, washing the cars, giving their youngest brother a bath, etc. Of course, the downside of giving your kids work is that the work gets done more slowly and less well. Mom and Dad have to be patient and willing to redo some of the work to get it up to adult standards.
To ensure I am not coming off as too much of a braggart, I should make it absolutely clear that my kids are still kids. Plenty of their chores require lots of nagging, repeated follow up, and whatnot. I still have to get on them to do what they are asked, but at least that is still better than doing the entire job yourself while your child watches cartoons. Or waiting to get started with chores at an age when your kids are older and more capable of resisting.
ALLOWANCES: As an advocate of chores, I am also a big advocate of allowances as the two go hand-in-hand in my book. I don’t think that allowances should be given out once a week no strings attached. The reasons I am pro-allowance, however, are perhaps not the conventional reasons.
First, my wife and I started giving allowances to my kids when they reached the age of 5 or 6 mostly to shut them up when we went to the toy store. I got tired of them, especially my oldest son who is a real material boy, asking over and over, “Can you buy this…Can we buy that….” I decided that giving them $5 a week which would allow me to respond to their incessant requests for more and more toys with a simple answer, “Of course you can buy it, but with your own money.” Given the amount of his allowance, I knew that it would take him a month of saving to purchase a $20 toy. If four weeks went by and he had the money and desire to buy the toy, who was I to stop him?
Once I started giving out allowances, I was able to gain insight into my kids spending habits. My oldest son, I soon found out, was a saver until he got to the point where he could blow his entire wad on a big toy. My youngest son spent his money every time we went out but on small, cheap dollar items. My daughter saved and saved and was actually quite generous. Sometimes she chose to spend her money to buy two of the same toy so that she and her brothers could play together more easily (once she used $120 of her own money to buy herself $60 Heelys–those shoes with a wheel in the sole– and a second pair of Heelys for her older brother because she wanted them to wheel around together).
I might have been slow to realize my kids possessed these traits if I hadn’t put some money in their hands and the power to make their own decisions. We also went down to the bank and started up bank accounts for them so that the little savers in the family wouldn’t leave the $110 they saved laying around their bedroom.
I require that my kids buy the fun, frivolous, optional stuff and my wife and I gladly foot the bill for the necessities, such as books, clothes, shoes, and most sports equipment. There is a gray area that leads to the inevitable question, “Do I have to buy this with my money or will you buy it for me?” In those instances, I do a quick calculation in my head of how they are doing with their chores, in school, and life in general and based on that I make a snap decision. It all works out pretty well, because my kids usually get what they really want and I get some comfort that they are slowly learning the value of work and earning a buck. If nothing else, someday I will feel less anxiety when I send them off to college with a credit card to use for emergencies and not have to worry that they will max it out on Cheetos, cheap beer, concert tickets, and Cuban cigars.