Raising Resilient Children

Maximizing their strengths, coping with adversity and developing a social mindset.

Giving Children an Allowance: Nurturing Resilience

Developing problem-solving, self-discipline, responsibility, and caring.

 

Parents often ask me questions that pertain to the topic of giving children allowances. The following are a representative sample:

Should you give children an allowance?

How frequently should you give an allowance?

Should you give an allowance that is large enough to cover the costs of children’s lunches at school or some of their clothing or similar expenses?

If you give an allowance, at what age should you start?

As a parent, should you have some say in how the allowance is spent (or saved)?

Should giving the allowance be based on children fulfilling certain responsibilities in the house?

Should an allowance be withheld if our children display negative behavior or do not fulfill a responsibility?

At my workshops and in my clinical practice I have offered responses to these questions that are based on the strategies that my colleague Sam Goldstein and I describe for developing a “resilient mindset” in children. My views about allowance are:

--Children should be given an allowance.

--The amount given should be reasonable and realistic, based, in part, on the child’s age; in deciding on an amount, the family’s financial situation should be taken into consideration.

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--A small allowance can be given when children are five or six years old.

--For simplicity and regularity, an allowance given each week works best.

--An allowance should not be given to cover basic needs such as for school lunches or for clothing. However, if a child wants something relatively expensive such as the latest superstar endorsed sneakers, I think it is appropriate and acceptable for parents to establish a limit on how much they are willing to contribute towards the purchase of the sneakers; if their child still wants the sneakers he or she can use allowance money or money that is earned to fill in the balance. This encourages the development of such characteristics of a resilient mindset as problem solving, decision making, responsibility, and self-discipline.

--In determining an allowance, parents can establish a policy that a certain percentage—even a small percentage such as 10-15%—be set aside for savings. However, I believe that parents should refrain from dictating how the rest of the allowance is spent. A father told me he was upset by the amount of allowance his son used to buy baseball cards, although to his credit the son did not ask for an increase in allowance to purchase other things. The father’s distress was lessened by the profit his son made when selling the cards. The father proudly commented, “My son’s become quite an entrepreneur.”

Another parent was concerned because her 12-year-old daughter was in the habit of immediately using her entire allowance to buy fashion magazines. On several occasions the girl asked her mother if she could have an “advance” on next week’s allowance. The mother wisely declined, informing her daughter, “It’s your decision about how and when to spend your allowance. If you spend it all on the first day you should realize that you won’t have any money to spend on other things during the rest of the week.” The mother reported that within a few weeks, her daughter learned to “ration” her weekly allowance and have some left at the end of the week.

--An allowance should not be given nor withheld as a condition for performing certain responsibilities or behaving in certain ways. In my experience the practice of using an allowance as a reward or punishment frequently backfires. I am not implying that a child’s behavior should not prompt consequences but rather that the consequences not involve the giving or withholding of an allowance.

In expanding upon this last point, I believe strongly in involving even young children in activities that contribute to the well-being of their family and others. These “contributory activities” nurture resilience in children, reinforcing the belief that they are making a positive difference in the lives of others. I don’t believe children should be paid to meet reasonable, day-to-day family responsibilities. Our message to our children should be, “We need and expect your help as a valued member of the family.” If children do not fulfill responsibilities, their neglect to do so should be tied to consequences unrelated to their being given an allowance.

When my two sons were growing up, the only exception I had to paying children for certain responsibilities took place during the fall season. Our house is surrounded by trees and given the hours they spent raking the leaves, I did feel their hard work deserved a monetary reward. Not everyone might agree, but it worked very well in our household.

 

 

Robert Brooks, Ph.D., is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and has served as director of the Department of Psychology at McLean Hospital.

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