Paying kids for chores doesn’t always work, and some research suggests it could do more harm than good. So what does work?
A typical morning in our house goes like this: wake-up (often by the cat), drag ourselves downstairs, devour a bowl of oatmeal or cereal, or sometimes, just to mix it up, crunch on a piece of toast.
What happens next, I have to say, is one of the best parenting inventions ever – the kids do their morning chores.
About a year ago, I decided my girls were old enough to take on more responsibilities. Help around the house. Pull their own weight so-to-speak.
So after a few minutes of enjoying breakfast and waking up a tad more, the girls set off to do their tasks: make lunch, take care of the cat, sweep the floor, and get their bedrooms in order.
Sometimes moaning is involved and yes, there are days when filling the cat’s water is forgotten but in general, for the past year, chores have been relatively successful in our house.
A few months ago my daughter discovered a friend gets paid to do chores.
“Why don’t I get paid to do chores?” she asked, making me feel like a CEO who just got a whiff of a potential union uprising.
Just when the whole chore thing appeared to be going well this twist is thrown into the mix.
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Why parents pay their kids for chores
It was bound to happen sometime: my kids finding out a friend is paid to do housework. According to the Fiscal Times, 90% of kids need to do some chores to get paid their weekly allowance.
The reasons why parents pay their kids for chores is about as diverse as the multitude of parenting styles we adopt:
- Some parents feel they need to teach kids that money is earned, that there are no handouts in life. After all, no one wants to raise kids who feel entitled.
- There’s also the desire to give kids a sense of what the working world is like. How it feels to be evaluated on effort or quality of work. Since young kids can’t get jobs, their work is dusting the living room or putting away the dishes in the dishwasher.
- Other parents may pay their kids for chores because that’s what their parents did for them. While still other parents believe kids need an incentive to do chores, and money is the best motivator there is.
But here’s the catch
Trying to instill a good work ethic in our kids is undoubtedly an admirable goal. Who can argue with teaching kids there are no handouts in life? Work comes first, money second.
But here’s the thing: kids also need to understand that sometimes adults do things they don’t get paid to do. When our kids move into their first apartment, no one’s going to pay them a dollar to vacuum or hand them weekly allowance money after the dishes are put away.
But if money is the only thing that has motivated them to do chores in the past, our kids may not have the intrinsic motivation to do chores as adults.
And research backs this up: while providing kids with a reward (in this case money) for accomplishing a task does work initially, there can be negative consequences in the long run.
How can paying kids for chores possibly be bad?
When we give our kids chores, we want them to do them, right? After all, those chores help the family and take some burden off of parents.
In 61% of households in the US, both parents work. Which means less time for housework. Which means parents actually need kids to pick up the slack.
But here’s the catch: if we pay our kids for chores, what happens if they decide the money just isn’t worth the effort of doing chores anymore?
Then we’re stuck.
Because now we’re faced with two scenarios:
- Either let our kids stop doing chores
- Or pay them more money to get the chores done.
And who’s to say one increase in pay will be enough? What if they keep asking for more?
Let’s not stop there. If we pay our kids for chores, kids might expect to be paid to do ANYTHING around the house.
For example, one mother who used rewards for motivation, discovered after she asked her eight-year-old son to stop what he was doing and help his younger brother clean up a spill, he responded: “What will you give me?” as told in the Atlantic.
Another couple reported in the same article: “We told our daughter that she could earn extra points toward her goal of getting a new phone if she would help us clean the kitchen after dinner, but she just said, ‘No, thanks.’ Now what?”
But kids need to learn the connection between work and pay
Just because paying kids for everyday chores has its drawbacks, doesn’t mean parents can’t still provide kids with other opportunities to earn money, develop “grit” or even take on an entrepreneurial mindset.
If kids are eager to earn money but aren’t old enough to get a job, there’s no reason why certain tasks above-and-beyond daily chores can’t be compensated.
Each family needs to decide on its own which tasks are considered mandatory chores and which are paid work. A general rule of thumb we use in our family is – could we technically pay an outside company to do this task?
For example, washing windows isn’t something families do every day and it is possible to hire a cleaning company to do this task, but we’d rather pay our girls to do this work (and they’re less expensive!)
Some families take it a step further by encouraging kids to be on the lookout for work they could be compensated for. Parents can also encourage kids to negotiate the amount they are paid for a given task – another valuable life skill.
See this related article for more ideas: How Young Kids Can Earn Money and Learn the Value of Work
Three tips to motivate kids to do chores without pay:
So if parents can’t dangle dollar bills in their kids faces to get them to do chores, how are parents supposed to motivate kids to help out around the house?
- Start young. Young kids are especially eager to help, to copy their parents and try new things. Also, if your kids can’t remember a time when they didn’t do chores, chores will just become a part of family life.
- Make chores something you do as a family. You could even go as far as listing all the chores everyone in the household does, including parents.
- Try this rule: “First things first.” This rule means: kids can’t have screen time until chores are done, or can’t ride their bikes or hop in the car to go hang out with friends. Chores come first. It’s that simple. And furthermore, it’s a life lesson that will benefit kids as they get older. Because, by the way, the “first things first” concept can also apply to homework.
How I got out of that sticky situation
I stood there in our kitchen trying to reconcile that my daughter now knew the truth – some kids get paid for chores.
“So why don’t we?” she asked again, clearly needing a good answer.
With that I used the explanation I turn to a lot in situations like these: “All families are different,” I explained. “Some families pay their kids for chores and some feel that chores are just something all family members do to help the household.”
“But why can’t we get paid for chores?” she persisted.
I then pointed out that my husband and I don’t get paid to clean the kitchen or do the laundry. “And besides,” I said. “You get an allowance.”
She grudgingly accepted this answer (thank goodness) and went on sweeping the floor.
And the next morning we woke up, dragged ourselves downstairs, ate more cereal and toast, and did the whole chores routine all over again – without anybody asking to get paid.
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