As a minor protest against April Fool's Day, I am writing a post that is utterly mundane and not an attempt to fool people. If not for this desire I probably wouldn't have gotten around to posting at all, what with the baby on my lap.
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As you all know, there are competing Parenting Theories out there on absolutely every topic imaginable about what parents might or might not do regarding their children.
I subscribe to a few of them myself.
Some of them really are moral imperatives -- not gonna say which ones I classify that way right now because that's beside the point -- my point is, yeah, there are things people do to their kids (mostly babies) that are objectively wrong, and it's important to spread the word and try to get fewer people to do 'em.
And there are things that all kids really need, that many kids don't get; things that their parents and caregivers and teachers owe to them, and must give them if they can. Those needs aren't imaginary and they aren't fads, even if they are sometimes more conveniently ignored.
Such things exist.
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On the other hand, there's also a lot of stuff out there that WHO KNOWS what's best, for which the answer to "What's the best way to do it?" is likely "It depends," and maybe there isn't a right way or a wrong way. There's no harm in exchanging ideas in case you learn of a new approach that might work for you; and sometimes people come up with truly novel approaches that "work" wonderfully -- but there's also virtually no chance that any of the ideas are going to be The One Right Way to do it.
A great deal of the learning curve of parenting is working out which things fall into which categories. (I wrote a post a couple of years ago about how that turned out.)
My way of working it out?
- Obsessively attempt to adhere to every practice that seemed like it might fall into the first category.
- Predictably, fail to do so perfectly.
- Observe the results of said failures -- the outcome over the whole family -- to determine where there was more flexibility of okayness, and loosen up there when circumstances warrant. Continue adhering, however imperfectly, to those practices that prove their worth.
I believe this is called learning from one's mistakes. I stumbled into it by accident, but I recommend it heartily.
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Sometimes, "what to do" calls for actual experimentation. And that is what we are doing right now in the area of allowance.
You know there have to be competing theories of kids' allowances, right? There must be. Because there are competing theories about everything.
Is the money a free gift that they can do whatever they want with? Including spending it all on candy? Or does the money come with strings? Do they learn charitable giving because you make them give ten percent, or because you let them see that you give ten percent? Is allowance tied to chores, so they can learn the value of earning their money? Or do they have to do chores just because they are part of a family and family members all must participate because that's what families do? If they're paid for chores, are they allowed to opt out of the chores? Do they save if they want and spend if they want, or do you make them save? Do they get cash or an instant bank transfer? Can they have a debit card? Is there a spending limit? Do older kids get more and younger kids get less, or is it all the same? Do they have to buy their own school lunches out of the money, and if so, are they allowed to skip lunch so they can have more money? Do they lose their allowance as punishment? Do they not get any allowance and they have to earn it all? When they set up a lemonade stand or a tomato patch do you front them the capital or charge them rent? Marx, Keynes or Hayek?
Bleargh. I never had the energy to work out which of these approaches was "best" in a theoretical sense (although you bet other people have and they are willing to tell you why all the other people are wrong).
At some point when my oldest was six or so we got tired of telling them "no" about candy at the store, so we started giving him a tiny allowance and then we would not have to say "no" at the store because he would be limited by the amount of money he had. At first it was "one treat" and then we decided to give him $1.50 because that's how much it would cost to buy the sorts of treats that *I* would choose. Things like a nice little cup of sweetened organic yogurt or maybe, if I was feeling especially liberal, a package of fruit snacks.
(I did mention that this was my first child, right?)
Very quickly we ran into problems with the laissez-faire approach when he figured out how to buy worryingly huge quantities of cheap, disgusting candy for $1.50. That was when we realized that the allowance question was not going to be simple.
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Fast forward seven years and several more kids. Skip over all the reasoning and the "why" and the "how we got here." Don't assume it makes sense. (Some of it has to do with how things that seemed like great ideas turned out to be time-consuming or inconvenient.) Up till a couple of weeks ago, we were giving each kid eleven dollars in cash every week month, and one of those dollars they were expected to put in the basket at church, and yes it was absolutely eleven dollars and not ten because THAT WAY WE DIDN'T HAVE TO MAKE CHANGE EVERY FREAKING SUNDAY MORNING.
And we weren't micromanaging beyond that. They could save or spend the rest however they wanted, and we took them to the bank now and again for a deposit. My oldest set a goal once to save a certain amount of money, which he did, and I believe he felt some sense of accomplishment, and so did we of course, but I think that was the only time that happened.
And we didn't tie it to chores, ostensibly because we're a family and everybody in a family has to work together and that's that, and also because what a pain to keep track of it, although once in a great while we would agree to pay a kid to do some odd job.
But a couple of weeks ago, inspired by a speaker at one of our co-op meetings, I decided I wanted to try something different for a while. I'll save time by sending you straight to the book she recommended which contained this idea. It's called Cleaning House: A Mom's Twelve-Month Experiment to Rid Her Home of Youth Entitlement, by Kay Wills Wyma.
I may or may not have been seduced by the word "experiment" in the title.
Anyway, I haven't actually read the whole book yet, just a couple of chapters, but let me sum up the basic approach here, which we are totally trying. In Wyma's story, she got sick of her kids assuming (correctly) that she would take care of all the stuff for them -- laundry, cooking, finding lost items in their rooms, etc. -- so she set about gradually increasing their household responsibilities, which were rather abruptly tied to their allowance.
She did it by the dollar-bills-in-a-jar method. Each kid got thirty one-dollar bills in a jar at the start of the month. Each day that he or she failed to meet the clearly communicated expectations, Mom removed a dollar from the jar. At the end of the month they could keep what was left.
Thirty dollars was more than they had been getting previously, so it represented a (potential) raise; and she started small. The first month, the expectation was only to keep their rooms to a minimum standard of order. After that, each month the stakes were raised: getting an assigned day to cook dinner for the family, doing laundry, and more.
I quite deliberately have not read the whole book. I'm reading it one chapter at a time. But I've decided to do the experiment on my three oldest children (13, 10, and 7).
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Right away I realized we'd have to do it a little differently. There is no way we will ever have it together enough to have that many dollar bills ready at the start of every month. I'd have to write IOUs and borrow from the future, and then I would lose my credibility and my authority would go out the window with it. The reason this system has a shot of working is that the kids can see the money actually leaving their jar every week. (And it just feels differently from a system where you pay them money each day.)
But I need reusable money or I will run out.
So we went with tokens. I used craft sticks, of the popsicle size. Each craft stick represents some money they can have at the end of the month. I got some Sharpies, one color for each kid, and signed a bunch of craft sticks to turn them into a medium of exchange. I put the sticks in a jar and handed them out. I sternly outlawed counterfeiting, and for now, transferring them between kids (because I need to collect data about the incentives). The amount of potential money represented a modest raise, from eleven to fifteen dollars per month.
And then I set the expectation that, when they leave their room, they must pull up the covers on the bed, pick up the floor, and close the closet doors. Later in the day I'll check, and if they haven't done it, they lose a token. At the end of the month we count tokens and pay them allowance based on the tokens.
I'm not exactly sure what my husband thinks of this scheme but on the outside he is backing me up firmly, and that is good enough for me.
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When we announced the experiment, my ten- and seven-year-olds were pleased at the prospect of a raise. But my thirteen-year-old reacted with dismay and fury. Something about it that he could not quite articulate offended him deeply. He wanted something different -- something where we paid them extra for extra jobs? something where there was a guaranteed minimum income, a "base allowance"? something where he didn't partly depend on his brother, with whom he shared a room? something where he didn't have to be subjected to the same rules as his younger siblings?
"This doesn't make sense," he kept saying.
I completely sympathized. Really. I could very easily put myself in his shoes. And I wasn't giving him a choice in the matter, although we did want to hear how he felt about it and we wanted to see how it worked as time went on.
"Let me explain something to you that you may not have realized about us," I told him. "Your dad and I are totally making it up as we go along. This is just something we are trying to see if it helps you and your siblings learn to do a few things that haven't been getting done around the house."
"If you want us to clean our room every day then why don't you just tell us to clean our room every day?"
"Because I want you to do it without being asked," I said. "I don't like asking all the time."
"But if you want me to keep the room clean every day I'll just start doing it!" he said. "I don't need the sticks to keep track."
I do, I thought. "Look," I said, "if you're so sure that you would rather just be told to clean your room every day and have it not be tied to your allowance... then do that. Clean your room every day, and you'll get the full amount. You'll come out just the same -- better, even, because it would be like getting a four-dollar raise."
"What if a kid doesn't do it because he decides he doesn't want the money?"
I was going to say "Fine" but Mark beat me to it and said he wasn't allowed to not do it on purpose. "Your mother wants the room clean and so you should make a good faith effort to do it."
I bit my tongue and went with that. "Yes, and also it wouldn't be fair to your brother who shares the room with you."
"Wait, you mean if he doesn't clean his stuff then I can lose my token?!?!"
More making it up as I go along. "Hmmmm..... When I check your room, if I can tell that one person has done his share and the other hasn't then I'll only take that person's token -- for instance, if one bed is made and the other isn't. But if I can't tell, like if there's just a bunch of laundry on the floor, I'll pull both tokens."
(They know well that I do not keep track of whose underwear is solids and whose underwear is stripes.)
"And you're going to give us more to do later? Will we get more money if you make us do more?"
"I don't know. Probably not right away. But," I promised, "we won't change the rules in the middle of the month. At the beginning of the month we'll be very clear about the expectations, and even if I decide I didn't do a good job setting them, we'll stick by what we said we'd do until the end of the month."
In the end, he submitted to the plan... but he was not happy about it. I really, honestly, felt bad about it. I like it when the things I make my kids do make sense to them. I like there to be some buy-in.
On the other hand... I had never worried whether it made sense to give them their string-free eleven dollars, either. We hadn't made a plan to do it that way because it was a good idea or because it fit our theories about how children should learn to manage money. We just settled into doing it that way. The new way would not be any less logic-based than the old way. It would simply be different. And we would not know if we liked it till we tried it.
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Tune in next time and I'll tell you how that first month -- actually it was a pro-rated, partial month -- went.