Allowance or Welfare?
“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt
October 1974 – My brothers and I wake up to a plain sheet of yellow paper taped to the door with chores for the weekend. Each duty is meticulously enumerated, detailed and distinguished as BYLH (Because You Live Here) or parsimoniously allotted a minuscule dollar value. The worst duty is sweeping the trash area, and the milk run is folding laundry or shining one of the 8000 pairs of cordovan wing tips that my father wears. He makes Imelda Marcos look frugal. There is no negotiation. Any effort at feigning illness is met with a cynical eye and an inventory of all the privileges a sick boy will not be able to enjoy this weekend. My father is dressed in an outfit that would make Mr. Blackwell turn in his grave – blue sweatshirt, cut-off military fatigues, white socks and yes, military boots. He means business.
Each Saturday morning is a long, slow, shuffled movement toward the area of our back yard we refer to as “the gulag.” To add insult to injury, 50% of my “wages” are garnished for my college fund. I will actually be in a lower tax bracket as an adult than I am now at 13 years old. The worst part of the entire process is the dreaded inspection where dad evaluates my work and usually says “it’s a good start.” Money is hard to come by and has to cover all the movies, sweets and trips to the sporting goods store that I can manage. Allowance for doing nothing? You might as well be on welfare. Allowance is viewed as a safety net that eventually becomes a hammock. Give a man a fish, feed him for the day. Teach him to fish, feed him for a lifetime. No, his kids will not be paid for living under his roof.
October 2006 – “Dad, can I have my allowance?” Confused and not fully caffeinated yet, I ask my 13-year-old “hasn’t Mom already given it to you?” She hesitates. It’s the same look my eight-year-old has when his mouth is full of cookies and I ask if he was eating sweets. “I can’t remember if Mom paid me or not.” From the other side of the house I hear my wife’s voice: “She still owes us for June, July, August and September advances!” My daughter looks like a confidence man caught in the middle of a scam. She shrugs and walks off.
It’s estimated that teenagers will spend $ 89 billion this year with $ 34 billion coming from allowance. I am sure if we all talked with each other; we could pool our resources and get much better value for that $ 89 billion. Perhaps, instead of sponsoring a daughter with a debt rating worse than most third world countries (the IMF wouldn’t touch her with a 10-foot pole); I could spend a few dollars on more socially redeeming projects.
Early on, I researched various ideas for allowance and became completely confused. Develop a system! This article from a psychologist/family planner was most likely penned by an MIT grad espousing a complicated payment algorithm involving escalators, percentages and cost-of-living adjustments. I could only imagine this taking in families of Mensa members. Pay on time was recommended by another expert. What about paying back advances on time? What about paying back at all? The next allowance expert (presumably single with no children) states that allowance is not a control device. Hmmm, well then what use is it? Oh yes, it is a mechanism to teach my kids the value of money. It seems to me to be disabling more than enabling. Ah yes, another lever taken away by those who are part of the secret union TNP (Teens for Neutered Parents).
It’s never too early, pushed one kid’s advocate. I tried it. I gave a dollar bill to my youngest child and ended up in the emergency room after he ate it and got it stuck in his throat. Develop accountability. The big a-ha! This is the root cause in my Six Sigma analysis of the failures in my system. Like so many of my other paper tiger initiatives, it’s inevitably taken over by my spouse, modified for simplicity and reimplementation – the way a new CEO comes in and cleans up after a well intentioned but completely ineffective predecessor.
My wife tells me not to be such a cynic. I just keep remembering that chore sheet (even today, I see yellow paper and have a Pavlovian reaction where I stoop and start pulling weeds) and the rigidity of my father’s system. I find myself once again feeling like a cryogenic experiment, recently thawed after 20 years. My dad had it right, but I am too neutered in this day and age to reestablish the old rules.
As I write this, I am told I need to pick up my son at football practice. I survey my wallet. It’s empty. I ask my daughter if I can have the $20 she managed to weasel out of me. “When are you going to pay me back, Dad?” No respect.