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When Parents Pay Money for Adolescent Cooperation

Monetizing adolescent cooperation can be problematic.

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

The complicated question was this: “Should parents pay their adolescent money for doing what they want?”

Of course, what parents would ideally like is their teenager just willingly doing as asked, unpaid, like a child who delights in pleasing Mom and Dad or at least who still believes their adult authority must be obeyed.

However, adolescence is a very self-absorbing process of developmental change as the priorities of pleasing tend to change. Now, pleasing self and pleasing peers tend to push ahead of pleasing parents a lot of the time. “I’d rather do what matters to me and my friends!”

In addition, the adolescent no longer lives in the Age of Command, when the child believed in the illusion of parental control: “My parents decide what I must and must not do.” An adolescent is not a child anymore. Now the young person lives in the Age of Consent: “My parents can’t make me or stop me, not without my agreement.” Claiming more power of personal choice when it comes to compliance, the young person can actively resist with more questioning and argument, and can passively resist through more forgetting and delay. Now, it can be harder for parents to get normal work from their teenager, at least right away.

This loss of traditional parental influence is not a problem to complain about, but a reality to contend with as the child becomes adolescent. It’s simply harder for parents to get what they want when they want it from their independent-minded adolescent (starting ages 9-13) than from their dependent, more readily compliant child (up to about 7-8.) Now, they must convince to get consent. “We have to mean what we say and sometimes use means of persuasion to get what we say, and the cooperation we want.”


Come the child’s adolescence, parents can’t fail to notice another change in the girl or boy. “If you think a child is expensive, wait until you have a teenager!” The parent was not misperceiving. Adolescence increases the demand for money and what money can provide.

Now the young person’s material wants increase as more worldly tastes develop for technology, fashion, entertainment, and social spending with peers. At a more freedom loving age, money buys more choices to keep up, to fit in, and to socially belong. Money matters more to the adolescent than the child. Money may not be able to provide lasting content, but it can offer momentary enjoyment.


So, at this point, it’s natural for parents to consider the persuasive power of money. Should they offer or deny it in order to get their way? To what degree do they want to monetize cooperation from their teenager? To what degree do parents want to use money to encourage the behavior they want from their adolescent?

Consider several common categories of parents paying the adolescent for what they want: to accomplish household chores, to encourage academic effort, and to influence rule compliance.


One rationale for this payment can be to teach working to make money. “This is the way of the world,” parents explain. “This is why we have jobs and why we give you household jobs to do, so you can get used to working for money too. Chores are work you get paid to do.” These parents treat chores as home-earning experiences.

For other parents, however, such payment gets in the way of services freely donated that help support family functioning on which all depend. Such investment also creates a sense of ownership in the family because everyone has a working part to play. Responsibility is shared. For helping with household basics, nobody gets paid, but everybody benefits. These parents treat chores as household membership contributions.

Some parents tie chores to getting an allowance. “When you have completed the household work you are supposed to do, only then will you get your allowance.” These parents use the withholding of given money as leverage to get chores done.

Some parents don’t think adolescents should get paid for chores because that makes doing or not doing them up for choice. “They are not an option. They are your share of family responsibility. They will be done. Our supervision will make this accomplishment so.” These parents treat doing chores as an unavoidable and necessary fact of family life.


“Your primary job is to give a full faith effort in school. As encouragement, we will pay you for specified levels of achievement.” So, for example, parents offer some dollar amount for every final grade ‘A’ or ‘B’ on the report card. Here, payment is used as an incentive to keep performance effort ongoing.

Payment for grades can create two kinds of problems – problems of threat and problems of motivation.

How can ten dollars for an A be a threat and not a reward? An oppositional adolescent can see it this way: “All you're saying is that if I don’t get an A, I don’t get any money! Well, I don’t care how much I don’t get paid; my grades are not up to you!” And now a performance issue has been turned into a power issue which the independent-minded adolescent can resent and resist. From what I’ve seen, this kind of payment-incentive tends to work better for children than for adolescents.

In addition, by paying for grades, parents make academic effort a matter of extrinsic motivation (working for external rewards that parents give), when developing intrinsic motivation (working for internal benefits that personally matter) is what really counts. Better to explain to the young person that academic effort and outcome are really for the young person’s sake. “When you look at your report card, we hope that you can see in the grades you get some positive evidence of your effort and capability. We hope that as you work to perform for yourself, you can feel good about yourself for what you have accomplished. And we also hope that in the process you can appreciate developing powerful work habits and self-discipline that will benefit you in the future.”

This is why a common goal for parents when a young person graduates from middle school is to no longer need their supervision when it comes to completing homework. Entering high school, the young person has developed sufficient self-discipline and internal motivation to reliably accomplish it without their support.


“I’ll pay you to keep curfew and to get your practice done to save me from having to keep after you.” When parents get to the point of regularly offering money to get ordinary compliance with family demands, they have usually cheapened the value of their relationship with the expense. “It just feels easier to pay him than to nag or argue,” they explain.

This can be a slippery slope when ‘doing for’ and ‘paying for’ are mixed. As financial influence from providing money is gained, relational influence based on willingness to cooperate can be lessened. At worst, buying desired behavior can feel like bribery, and at worst like extortion: “I’ll only do it if you pay me to.” It seems to me best in both the short and long run to keep these routine cooperative interactions cash-free.

What to do instead? Better simply to insist on living in a two-way relationship with parents, and not parents living on a one way – his or her way – relationship to the teenager. Rather than employ money as a management tool, insist on an adequate exchange of benefits with your adolescent. Insist on mutuality.

Dealing with important compliance, parents can say and mean something like this. “We want a two-way relationship with you where you benefit from what we have to give, and where we benefit from what you have to give. Just as you have needs and wants of us, so we have needs and wants of you. To do for you, we need to have you do for us, like following our basic rules. And sometimes this will mean that before we do for you, you will need to do for us. It's simple really: cooperate with us and we’ll cooperate with you.”

When it comes to encouraging chore completion, academic effort, and rule compliance, offering money as an incentive is usually not the best parenting option, at least from what I have seen.

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and the Importance of Talking with Parents

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