Philosophy vs. Reality

I am a totally awesome parent. Possibly the very best around, in fact. I am consistent. I am firm but loving. I pick my battles, refuse to sweat the small stuff, and set up natural consequences. I have high expectations and foster an environment in which independence and success are the natural default.

All of this, of course, is IN MY HEAD. It’s philosophy and theory. And even the parts which I manage to put into practice never seem to have the results I expect, which is WEIRD, you know, because back before I became a mother I’m pretty sure I knew everything.

Damn these children and their individual personalities and pacts with the devil and whatnot. SHEESH.

One of the things I really love about having Otto along on this parenting adventure is that he really challenges me to examine my parenting decisions. We’re at a point now where he does nearly as much parenting as I do, but I am still the “final word” in discipline, so he runs his ideas past me and asks me to explain mine, and it’s all very cooperative and enlightening.

(It’s also a huge switch from the parenting relationship I share with the kids’ father, wherein if I stay out of it I am sabotaging their relationship and if I try to help I’m meddling. You know how I love a can’t win situation like that, particularly when it comes to the people I love best in the world. Hooboy! Good times!)

Anyway. This weekend we converted the kids’ allowance over to an online system with Google Docs, which I love beyond all healthy measure because 1) it removes any argument about how much money any child has at any given time, because THERE’S THE LOG, DUDE, 2) we can do the automatic formula to skim the charity and savings amounts right off the top, and 3) I never have cash, and when I do have cash I don’t have correct change, and this way all I have to do each week is go into the spreadsheet and plug in a number. Now, it’s true that we’d gotten rather lax (read: had forgotten to pay them for the entire summer) about allowance, so we went ahead and decreed a new pay scale (your age divided by two, each week, minus 10% to charity and 15% to savings) and then essentially paid them for several months in one fell swoop.

Otto asked—and it’s a valid question—whether allowance is tied to chores. I said no, because my philosophy is that you do chores because you’re a member of the family; no one pays ME to make dinner or do the dishes, so why would we pay them? Allowance is about learning to manage and budget their money, and letting the kids take responsibility for acquiring some “wants” that we aren’t going to provide. But at the same time, noncompliance with household responsibilities can mean your allowance gets docked, sure. Otto very gently asked me if that wasn’t the same thing as tying allowance to chores.

Which is about the time I stuck my fingers in my ears and started shouting LALALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU. Because in my mind, PHILOSOPHICALLY, it’s not the same thing. But I’ll grant you that it’s a tenuous distinction. And probably not one the kids appreciate. So my clinging to it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

The reality is that Monkey is a saver; nothing makes him happier than to know he’s got a chunk of cash saved up “just in case.” (He is apparently his mother’s son.) And Chickadee will doubtless be credited with the updating of the old-fashioned “burning a hole in your pocket” idiom to something like “burning a hole in your Google account.” The moment she has money she wants to spend it. The bottom line for both of them, though, is that they find cash hugely motivating.

So am I going to leverage their money-grubbing tendencies? You bet I am.

Chickadee washed cars yesterday for an extra $10. (She’s saving up for a new iPod, or so she says.) All was sudsy and happy.

In theory, the kids’ school morning responsibilities are crystal clear: They need to be up/washed/dressed/fed with their rooms picked up (read: no laundry on the floor, bed made) by a designated time. In Chickadee’s case—because she attends an early club at school—she needs to have everything done in order to get a ride to school with Otto, otherwise she has to take the bus and miss her club. IN THEORY, there is nothing confusing about these requirements. At all.

In reality, Monkey cheerfully talks my ear off every morning through breakfast, while his sister stomps and races around and barely makes it out on time. In reality, not only did my darling daughter neglect to pick up her room this morning, when warned to take care of it, she kicked a bunch of laundry under her bed and then tried to claim that she must’ve “accidentally knocked it” on her way to tidy up. (I am seriously considering putting a bumper sticker on my car that says TURNIP TRUCK. That way when she tells us this stuff, I can point to it and remind her that I didn’t just fall off that thing yesterday.) In reality, my tween’s reaction to being caught disobeying is to snarl and snipe at me and Otto rather than apologizing, and Otto finally gave up and told her he wasn’t giving her a ride. And Chickadee was being such a jerk to him, I totally supported his decision.

In theory, I’ve got these rules for good conduct all figured out.

In reality, Otto departed this morning and left me with a hysterically sobbing tween who INSISTED that if she missed drills this morning she would be ineligible for the upcoming math competition, and she was SO SO SORRY that she hadn’t UNDERSTOOD what she was supposed to do, and could I PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE drive her to school.

In reality, that felt an awful lot like a situation with no good solution.

In reality, after a stern talking-to about all the ways in which she’d mishandled the morning, I allowed my daughter to call mulligan (each child gets one “save” each school year; Chickadee has never made it out of September before using hers) AND I charged her $5 (more than she nets in a week), and I took her to school.

In reality, I don’t know that I made the “right” parenting choice. But as she cried on the way to school, Monkey piped up from the back seat that if she was sad about the money, he would happily loan her $5. Which makes it kind of hard for me to believe there’s a “right” answer, when I have two kids whose priorities and inclinations and choices are so very different.

In theory, I’m a totally awesome parent.

In reality, I’m a taxi driver with a guilty conscience.


  1. Half Assed Kitchen

    Aww, I totally get it. It’s so hard to always be 100% consistent with little humans who are not 100% consistent. I love your system, by the way.

  2. elz

    I think that was a great solution to a no-win problem. We’ve just started talking about allowance with our girls. I think we will start it when Em turns 6 (next week! AUGH! sniff) I like your method of calculation & I agree that allowance should not be tied to chores, but disobeying family rules does get docked. I think that is a fair way of teaching consequences.

  3. steff

    Actually – you double crossed Otto and made 5 bucks! woo hoo! :-) just kidding.

  4. Lisa

    There is a fine distinction between tying allowance to chores and offering an allowance as a matter of course, but then docking pay for chores undone. I do things as you do: I believe my son should learn money management skills so I give him an allowance (1/2 his age/week), but I dock him when he doesn’t do his chores. The way I look at it is that when he makes a choice not to do his chores, that means he’s paying me to do them for him.

  5. Hally

    I know you’ve got NO IDEA what some girl (as I still think of myself as a girl even when I just hit the 30-somethings) from California thinks is so great about your blog.
    BUT I DO!
    You’re honest and refreshing, it’s real and down to earth. And it’s just so much like you & I just met up for coffee after dropping the heathens off to their schools.
    It’s awesome the way that even with the everyday chaos of life & limb, I can still read how much you, Otto & the kids love each other. Otto is the stuff of legends. A man who loves his wife’s kids enough to say so. Even through actions AND words.
    Somewhere in CA, a mom to boys is pouring another cup of coffee *yes another, why judge?* and thinking, ‘hmph….I can totally do this parenting thing!’
    All the best,

  6. RuthWells

    Holy hell, you’ve got a wily child on your hands. Really tough call. I’m not at all sure how I would have handled that situation. I applaud your getting through it without turning to drink.

    I have one spend-thrift and one saver as well. Quin is always trying to convince Garrick that G really WANTS to buy the book/game/whatever that Quin wants desperately, but has no money for. The silver lining is that Garrick is getting VERY good at standing his ground….

    We don’t tie allowance to chores, but special requests like a trip to the video store usually depend on “how much help we’re going to get around the house today”. It’s amazing how fast the playroom can get cleaned and the dishwasher emptied under such circumstances!

  7. CarolM

    Our allowance system is very similar to yours, right down to using a Google Docs spreadsheet. Our allowance is not directly tied to chores. But if a kid does not do what they are expected to, there is a “service charge” for me to do it for them. They even have to pay a “reminder fee” for my nagging services.

  8. navhelowife

    I think you did well. Things in this life are very rarely as we imagine them.

  9. Holly

    Mir, you rule. Seriously, that’s great. And I love Monkey trying to cheer up his sister, who was probably horrid to him at some point in the morning, too. That’s beautiful.

    I think your system of allowancing is super, too. To refine the non-payment in the case of non-chore doing, you might phrase it as them paying you to do their chores. Just like if you didn’t want to cook, you could pay a restaurant to cook for you. Or take the laundry to a wash-n-fold place if you chose not to do it. Or Otto could hire the neighbor kid to mow the lawn, etc, etc. If they don’t pick up their dirty socks, you as the proprietor of the sock-picking-up business can set the rate for picking up their dirty socks. That’s totally legit and maybe more graspable.

    Also, I wish we were neighbors. Except then there’d be the weird vibe of me having read your blog for years and knowing/admiring you and you having no idea who I am. So maybe it’s better this way.

  10. Sherry

    Feel free to use my line, “I may have been born at night, but I wasn’t born LAST NIGHT!”

  11. Spinoff

    Oh, we absolutely docked allowances for non-completion of chores. My rationale was that while the boys weren’t paid to do their share of household duties, if they didn’t do them they were paying me to do them. And you can bet I took the money.

  12. Sharon

    First off, I think you handled the morning melt-down with grace under pressure. That’s hard to do and still get everyone in the car in time. Well done.

    With my kids grown and gone I had to think about what we used to do. They each got a weekly allowance, the old-fashioned way in one dollar bills, and they each had chores. We didn’t dock allowance for chores undone, but we did delay fun activities until chores were caught up, i.e. no tv, playing with friends, etc. until bed was made or toys put away. It worked for us. My kids have told me in the years since that they thought the way we handled it was fair.

  13. Hip Mom's Guide

    I love this example. It amazes me how almost every single theory forgets to account for the tween/teen factor. It’s so much easier in theory, isn’t it! :)

  14. Amy

    Here is a good analogy that demonstrates allowance is not tied to chores, but there may be a monetary penalty for ones actions.

    I am an adult with a full-time job that pays a salary. This salary is paid whether or not I do my laundry, clean the toilet, run the dishwasher, or cook dinner. However, if I forget, or even if I just get lazy and don’t make my lunch to take to work, I have to pay between $5-10 to buy lunch out. There is a cost to me that is totally unassociated with how much or how often I am paid my salary. Other skipped chores may have different costs related to replacement cost of an item or late fees incurred.

  15. Katie in MA

    I hear wine works very well on that tricksy conscience thing. I know because I am trying to break my 4-year-old of whining and dallying her way out of cleaning up because she knows her older sister will eventually get to her half of the mess, and whining if she can’t sit in her spot because her sister will graciously move to the other side of the couch, and and and… I have to straighten out my 4-year-old and somehow teach my 6-year-old that YES, I want her to be nice to her sister but not to reinforce bad behavior. Like I said – wine helps.

  16. Lucinda

    This morning I was just thinking about how every single decision I make as a parent is second-guessed by me all the time. My daughter woke up this morning snarling and growling. Last week she had been surprisingly pleasant as we prepared for school and I had hoped she had turned a new leaf. But this morning was back to usual after a hectic weekend of celebrating her birthday. I pondered what to do–tell her to knock it off and get her crap together lest I accidentally encourage this rudeness or try to cheer her up and use humor or coddle her completely knowing she was really tired. When she dissolved into tears without knowing why, I chose gentle and loving. Scooped her into my arms, held her for a few minutes, and gently encouraged her to pick some clothes. We were running late the rest of the morning and we scrambled to get out on time, but at that moment I decided I could never love on my kid too much. Was it the right approach? I just don’t know. But she perked up and wasn’t in tears when I dropped her off at school so I think it was the right thing to do. Yet again, your post was very timely. Thanks.

  17. Katherine

    I give my kids the same level of allowance (though I had never figured out how to do the charity/save thing – now they are decent at saving because what they want is bigger stuff) and the same its not tied to chores. I’ve never figured out a good way to deal with undone chores other than, “you can’t do X (have a snack, play with a friend, etc) until it is done”. OTOH, I have worked out a system for rides to school – if you mess up and need a ride, you have to pay me the amount of gas I use up PLUS chores equal to the time it takes me to take you (round trip). I don’t always charge the chore time for oops, I missed the bus – but I do charge it for “oops, I left my homework, can you bring it to school”.

    My 14 yo is mostly a spender – he is getting better because what he wants is bigger stuff, like new iPods, but he is really only motivated to save when he has something he wants. Currently he wants a cell phone, but evidently not enough to pay $15/mo for service plan (we’re offering to pay $10/mo). So far, no phone – and his chances to earn relatively easy money mowing lawns is fast disappearing. My 11 yo is a saver big time. I’m convinced that the saver/spender is an inborn trait. And yes, it makes it hard to treat each kid fairly. Sometimes each kid can commit the same offense (at different times) and get different punishments, depending on what works best for him.

  18. Katherine

    One other thought – I use ING to handle the kids money. I could even set it up to automatically transfer their allowance each week from my account, (but I haven’t). I transfer money in and out and then only need cash occasionally. And they get a bit of interest.

  19. RebeccaF.

    I have been through this particular valley with my kids and my husband, their step-dad. I would have done the exact same thing and taken my daughter to school. Don’t doubt yourself in these situations – kids can smell fear! She had some consequences and hopefully she will learn from her mistakes.

    My husband would have totally called me on not backing him up, though. He totally operates by the letter of the law and I extend a lot of credit (grace) to my kids.

  20. bob

    question: if their (accumulated) allowance isn’t large enough to cover the fine being imposed for not doing a chore, is the fine changed? Can money separately earned (say, for babysitting for a neighbor or birthday money) be used to pay the fine? If the answer to both questions is no, then they are working for chores. If you are using their allowance as a vehicle not just for teaching financial management but also as a means to punish unwanted behavior then it is a salary.

    I’m not sure what you are feeling guilty over – taking her to school anyway (and substituting the $5 fine for the consequence for not showing up to club) or for fining her the $5 for not doing her chores despite the fact that her allowance is not supposed to pay her for doing them. Or, what? Either way, see no reason for it.

    Despite the philosophical argument over the meaning of their allowance, she behaved poorly and needed to reap the consequences. You chose to substitute the fine over her being disqualified for the competition. I doubt Chickadee is smarting over the injustice of her allowance being used for non-performance of chores despite the “no pay for chores” philosophy. If you are feeling guilty over yet another meltdown – she precipitated it, not you. If you are feeling guilty because your stunning parenting has failed to prevent meltdowns – uh – we are talking about YOUR daughter. Its gonna happen, and nothing but time is going to solve it.

    All in all, I’m sure she just hates you for making such a big deal over nothing and ruining her life in the meantime.

  21. Megan

    That last sentence? Totally sums up parenthood. Or maybe it just feels that way today….

  22. Mamadragon

    I think you’re awesome, and I think part of being awesome is understanding when something really matters to a kid. You’re her mom; you’re supposed to be there for her sometimes.

    I only charge $2 for rides to school, but I may raise my rates when my delinquent girl reaches middle school. In theory the fee is supposed to pay for gas. In reality, the first time she incurred the charge, she got to witness her parents having a barely-civilized fight at the front door over who was going to drive her to school and therefore get the two bucks for a drive-thru coffee. Bwa ha ha! I can’t decide if it was an epic parenting FAIL or a parenting WIN.

  23. Mamadragon

    I have to clarify – you’re supposed to be there for her ALL THE TIME. Not just sometimes. But sometimes you’re supposed to be really obviously on her side. As opposed to the other times when you are there for her by providing the discipline she needs even though it’s not what she wants.

    I’m just making a mess of your comment section now. I’ll just slink away. Pretend you don’t see me. It’s kinder that way.

  24. Jamie

    Wow, such interesting stuff! I don’t think you have anything to feel guilty for and I appreciate reading everyone else’s suggestions, too. We don’t currently give allowances for our 9 and 6 year olds, but we’ve talked about starting. This has been a great learning tool for me, so thanks to everyone for sharing.

  25. Melissa

    We don’t do allowances yet either but I really appreciate reading everyone’s comments! Sometimes there is just no winning!

  26. MomCat

    I think it’s a tween/teen’s job to try to manipulate their parents with guilt. In times like these, I suggest Righteous Indignation. Cling to it. It is your friend.

  27. addy

    I used a very similar method as my daughter was growing up. She picks up her room now – she doesn’t way overspend her paychecks – and she is a very nice, decent human college attending person. So, keep doing what you’re doing. It will work out. And seriously try wine for the guilt thing. Feels so much better ;)

  28. Cindy

    Dang Mir, two cars washed for $10! your the bomb.

  29. Debra

    This whole parenting gig is hard beyond all measure! We never tied allowance to chores either but I did charge them a fee if I had to do it. You would pay a maid right? Which I am not unless I have to do your chores. That’ll be $3.50 please.

    So I think having Chickadee pay the taxi driver is quite fair. Dump the guilt. It’s undeserved.

  30. the celt (jessica)

    I’d see it like that, actually: it’s not a fine and the money isn’t tied to her chores. In the end, it comes down to this: If YOU have to do a chore they are supposed to do, they are compensating you for your time by paying you for doing their work. I think they should have to literally give you cash (instead of withholding allowance money) to ensure that they understand that this is their money being used as restitution. If Chickadee doesn’t do her work and it causes her to lose another privilege (because she has to take that time to do her work), then that is her restitution. If it puts you out in another way (you have to drive her when you weren’t expecting to), then it becomes an issue of compensation. If they have to dig into actual cash to repay you, then it becomes more like you are providing a service for which they are required to reimburse you.

    Does that remotely make sense?

  31. Kira

    I just HATE it when my kids come along and muddle up my carefully crafted theories. Jerks.
    Fwiw, you are one of my parenting heros.

  32. Nancy R

    Ha! MamaDragon, you made me laugh with the argument over drive-thru money.

    We also give allowances that are, in theory, not tied to chores. At what point do you see yourself leveling off the amount or stopping the allowance? That’s something that’s still vague for us so I like to hear about others’ plans.

    My issue with them “paying” me for chores they didn’t do is that eventually they will probably say, “I don’t want to put away my laundry. Here’s $2.” and that’s SO not the point. Right? I guess some explaining would have to ensue about how you have to request, not demand, services and sometimes those requests will be turned down even if you’re willing to pay for them…why does that sound inappropriate and slightly prostitute-like?

  33. suzie

    I just gave my 12 yo daughter your name, and told her to google your email address.

    That way, she knows where to go to complain.

    Because I told her this story, and what expectations you have of Chickadee on a *daily basis*!! And told HER (my daughter), that I think it’s time things change around here.

    Because she maybe takes her room from squalor once a month. Maybe.

    She’s claiming it isn’t fair to just “change things all of a sudden” now that she’s “so old!”


    And our allowance is not tied to chores. Occasionally, I will have special, large jobs that I will offer $$ for. Like – ironing a table cloth. Bathroom cleaning, room cleaning, vacuuming of various rooms, taking out of trash, etc., they have to do because I’ve asked them to. But I’m also not willing to share what their allowance is in public. So.

  34. Mary Fran

    OK, first, I hate that my RSS feed has been updating wantnot, but not this blog. I came straight here to find out that I’ve missed three posts.

    But I LOVE the formula and that you use a spreadsheet. I never have anything but 20’s, and so thus, the kids (who really never have anywhere to spend money anyway) haven’t had an allowance. We did “kindness cash” this summer where they could earn or lose a dollar a day depending on their level of kindness to each other. Gave them money to spend on vacation.

    Off to set up a google doc…

  35. Bill at FamZoo

    We do the same thing with the chore arrangement – dinging their accounts when they don’t do them. A nice middle ground between the hassle of tracking completion and letting them get off scot free. So, instead of a chore chart, we keep a “chore fail chart”. Love the automating into an online system. I started with a spreadsheet and then ended up building an online virtual family bank site called FamZoo with a bunch of other personal finance tools built in. But the key thing seems to be to have a consistent system – like Otto’s Google Docs approach – and not have to hassle with physical cash and to have the flexibility to implement your own unique family values.

    Thanks for the entertaining post – love your writing style!


  36. Fairly Odd Mother

    I *JUST* set up a whole “chore chart” for the three kids that is VERY tied into their allowances. It’s pretty flexible though, and they will have a set allowance as long as they—in general—do the chores they are asked to do without us threatening, cajoling, begging or weeping. I couldn’t handle giving them 25 cents for this, and 25 cents for that; nor can I even give the kids different amounts, so the 6 yo will get the same as the 9yo.

    And, honestly, I don’t see the point of giving the kids allowance just for “being”. But, then again, they aren’t going off to school and needing to have spending money like most kids need—they can just turn to me and ask me for the most part.

    I love your Google Doc idea since I NEVER have the cash on me when I need it. I just set one up. Let’s see how this all goes.

    This is all weird to me since I NEVER got an allowance as a child.

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