How Money Winds Up in Kids' Pockets

Jan Hofmann, a mother of two, writes regularly for Orange County Life

Vacuuming: $5.

Taking out garbage: $3.

Washing dishes: $5.

That's the closest one Tustin family gets to passing out allowances. Every job has its price, and if the children want the money, they do the work. Ingrid, the family's 16-year-old daughter, is $200 closer to buying a car after finishing a major painting job. "It was a 200-foot picket fence, and I got a dollar a foot," she said. "That was, like, really hard work."

For another family, this one in Yorba Linda, it works this way: For every A on their report card, the children get a quarterly allowance of one dollar. If the grade is a B, they receive 50 cents. For a C they get nothing, "and if it's a D or F, we get grounded," said Farrah, 10, who usually gets good grades. "Last time I got $8, but I did part of the cooking that night, too, so I got more for that."

But most of the families we talked with on the subject of allowances don't have such a formal setup. Susan, a mother of three in Brea, is typical. "We tried having allowances, but it just didn't work out," she said. "We told the kids, if you do this and this, you'll get your allowance. They never did it, so they didn't get it. After a while, we just forgot the whole thing."

Which is not to say that most kids in Orange County are running around with empty pockets. Laura, 16 and a friend of Ingrid, said her parents give her money when she needs it. "In return, they expect me to do things around the house. It's just an understanding between us."

The two girls say most of their friends have more money than they do. "I have a lot of friends, they just get handed money, right?" Ingrid said. "But they don't have to work for it, so it doesn't mean anything to them. I think that would be pretty neat, but a lot of them take advantage of it."

Sometimes, so do Laura and Ingrid. "They (friends) have all this money, so they love to take us, like, out to lunch and stuff," Ingrid said. "So we don't ever need money." But the girls say they don't make a habit of asking their friends for money.

Even though they don't turn her down often, Laura said she avoids asking her parents for money as well. "I just try not to. Most of my money comes from working," Laura said. "Or I save money that people give me, like for birthdays and stuff."

The hardest money to spend, Laura said, is money she earned herself from baby-sitting or other jobs. "If it's my own money, I feel more guilty spending it because I've worked hard for it. I want to spend it on something really worthwhile, something that will last."

Ingrid agreed. "Free money, I can just, like, throw away, you know?"

Laura's mother, Irene, said she doesn't like the idea of paying children to do work around the house, either as an allowance or by the job. "It's just part of their relationship with the family," she said. "We (the parents) don't get paid; why should they?"

Rhonda, however, said that's not what allowances are all about. A mother of two teen-age sons who lives in Orange, Rhonda said allowances have been important to her family since the boys, 19-year-old Mark and 17-year-old Todd, were preschoolers.

"Before they even started school, we gave the boys a quarter a week to spend on what they wanted. That meant candy, of course," she said. "It was a way of limiting how much they had. And they learned from it. When we went through the checkout at the grocery store, they knew they couldn't ask me for everything they saw. They had money, and they had to decide how to spend it.

"I remember, when they were a little older, they saw a kid (at the supermarket) throw himself down on the floor, trying to make his mother buy him something. They didn't like that at all.

"As they grew, so did the allowance. It was provided to teach them the use of discretionary income. The allowance has never been tied to work. It was never given in exchange for anything, including behavior.

"As family members, however, both sons have certain obligations. They must pick up after themselves, maintain their rooms in a satisfactory manner and do weekly housekeeping chores. These chores were never related to the allowance but to the fact that their efforts are necessary to the smooth running of the family unit.

"Some parents do everything for their children, and the children then have no feeling of their own self-worth. I work at a high school, and all the time, I hear kids who say, 'I'm late because my mother didn't wake me up.' They should be waking themselves up long before they get to high school.

"Our sons have been making their own beds since they were 3 or 4--not very well, but they did it. They started vacuuming when they were 5. That has let them know they could take care of their own needs."

Rhonda said a friend's very different experience convinced her that she was taking the right approach. "She attached a monetary value to ordinary chores, and her child immediately adopted a 'What's-it-worth-to-you?' attitude toward requests for help."

Carolyn, an Anaheim mother of three, said that even though she had a regular allowance when she was growing up, she and her husband, Pierre, decided not to give their children allowances.

"We tried it a couple of times," she said. "But we couldn't be consistent, so we gave it up. Now if they need money, they ask."

Before she and her husband reach into their wallets, however, Carolyn said they ask one very important question: What do you need it for?

"You'd be surprised how much communication there can be in a brief time when you ask that question," Carolyn said. "And with teen-agers, that's especially important."

The family's oldest, Lisa, is 20; son Paul is 18, and the youngest, Mark, is 16. "At this age, they're often embarrassed to have their parents around," Carolyn said. "But at least, when they see us after a ballgame or something when they're with the crowd, they think, 'Oh, good, the money's here.' There's still a link, and that's important."

One reason Carolyn and Pierre decided against allowances is that "we don't want them to have so much money they get in trouble with it," Carolyn said. "I know kids who walk around with $40 or $50 on them all the time. I don't like that idea. If they have too much excess pocket change, it just makes things like drugs and alcohol more accessible. I really don't think my children would get into that, but I'd just rather not take that chance, you know?

"We want to keep it in balance. They should have some sense of control over their money, and they do. Sometimes they just throw it away, and it's difficult to watch. But if they can see the consequences of their actions, they can learn from it. And they have to learn. They're going to be in charge of a family of their own someday."

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