• Dr. Michael Johnson

    Psychologist, Specialist in Problematic Sexual Behavior

  • Dr. Michael Johnson

    Specializing in Sex Addiction Treatment in Austin, TX

My Kids Want Stuff

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Our kids consume lots of stuff. Sugared stuff, Nike stuff, entertaining stuff, fashion stuff, and lots of other stuff. We suspect that groups of well paid people gather in high tech offices every day to figure out ways to get our kids to consume more stuff; especially their stuff. We are convinced that our kids enjoy being persuaded which kind of stuff they most need to consume. They seem to enjoy life in this post-modern, post-industrial, processed, media driven, market circus. It is the world they will inherit and they may as well learn to cope with their destiny as consumers.

In the meantime, we have other objectives for them. We want them to become responsible, independent people who lead value based lives, express themselves freely, clearly and creatively, understand and accept the consequences of their actions, and make decisions accordingly. We know; It's a lot to ask. We try not to talk directly to our kids about those things because we are dead sure that they are least likely to listen to us when we most wish they would. We are also sure (and the literature supports this) that preaching about values and virtues is a useless activity except as it inflates the egos of the preachers. We are equally sure that the forceful imposition of "correct" value based decisions leads to feelings of helplessness, inadequacy, and resentment and mainly lays the foundation for future problems without accomplishing much at all. People mainly learn by experience and example.

Judging from the cars in high school parking lots and the cost of athletic shoes a good number in our cohort confuse non-contingent reinforcement with unconditional positive regard. The former is exemplified by the practice of giving kids whatever stuff they believe they need, unlinked to behavior, consequences, or responsibility. Lots of people think such giving of stuff is equivalent to giving love. But our experience teaches us that stuff and love are very different and so cannot be substituted one for the other. The latter, on the other hand, refers to genuine acceptance, support, love, and caring independent of behavior and can only be communicated and received in the context of healthy and reciprocally respectful relationships. Stuff has nothing to do with relationships either.

So we are confronted with a dilemma which is not uncommon. We want our kids to have values and our kids want to have stuff. All along we have attempted to create structures which would provide learning experiences. We hoped our structures would lead our kids toward the essential truths we think all people should discover. One such structure was a rather conventional allowance system. Our initial system was fairly standard contingency management framed with only reinforcement as agent of behavior control. Each kid had duties such as doing laundry and washing dishes. In return for these duties they received some amount of money, typically a pittance by adult standards. Actually this system, for its limits, was fairly effective. But we found that the pay was often insufficient to avoid occasional work strikes. That led us to break our own rule and impose punishment in the form of fines to restore order and obedience. As it usually does, punishment was effective when delivered with sufficient force. But also it had it's usual side effects of bad feeling and resentment, however transient and mild.

This traditional system also accounted for only a fraction of the stuff our kids consume. We still had to provide, in daily or weekly installments, funding for lunches at school, major recreation, implements of pleasure, Christmas and birthday gifts for their friends, and wardrobe. That system also left open seemingly endless opportunities for ad hoc negotiations over how much should be spent on a pair of jeans, uncollateraled loans, begging, manipulations, distortions, deceptions, pleading, disappointment, and muted mutual hostility. We sometimes saw our kids as greedy, ruthless, selfish, ravenous consumers of stuff with no redeeming virtues or the slightest idea of the value of the stuff they consumed. They, we suspect, sometimes saw us hard-hearted tightwads who hadn't the slightest idea what was required for a satisfactory existence and who cared little for their welfare. The system gave us all such sour feelings at times. It also gave us as parents many chances to be inconsistent, which in calmer moments, we knew we should avoid.

These continuous microdramas and their often mutually disappointing results led us to seek a more useful solution. In a wry moment I (Michael) suggested that we should simply estimate the total amount of money each kid consumed each year, give the kid that money, and wait to see what happened. Although too extreme, there was in that the seed of our current solution.

Rather than allocating an annual budget (which even the federal government now seems unable to accomplish) we decided to budget the kids on a monthly basis. Into that budget would go all of their recreation and entertainment, spending money, clothing allowances, and school meal money.

The next step involved determining the actual pay available for chores. We drew on our previous list of chores and made some additions. Negotiating with the kids and based on the time and difficulty involved in the work, we set the pay for each chore so that we consumed the total monthly figure. We also set those chores done by both kids, such as dish washing, at the same pay level and accounted for the differences in their pay with chores that were not common.

Next, we created individual calendars for each kid with the chores listed in each day so that they could be checked off as completed. In practice, we have found it more convenient to check off chores not completed. Those calendars are posted conveniently in the kitchen. Also, each calendar includes a pay for chore list. A sample calendar is included.

Managing money includes dealing with banks. And so to make saving easier and spending harder, we opened kid accounts for each kid, complete with an automatic teller card for each kid. We gave each kid the option of keeping their own card or having us keep it with the caveat that the cost of a lost card would come out of their funds.

The start-up of this system posed a problem. The kids had been paid weekly. Now we had switched to a plan that paid them monthly. There was no reasonable way to expect them to make it through an entire month on only one week's pay. Also, the bank required a minimum deposit to open an account. Therefore, we decided to open the bank accounts with a full months pay. Essentially, at the beginning, each kid got a month's pay for no work.

At the close of each month we tally up the pay each kid has coming. We next add in the number of school lunch days in the coming month and compute the needed amount for lunches. Lunch money is not connected to chores. We then write a check for each kid and try to get to the bank to deposit the check as soon as possible. In this regard, we suggest selecting a nearby bank that allows deposits by automatic teller.

There are several rules that we try to keep:
No Nagging. If the work isn't done, the pay doesn't come. If the pay incentive isn't sufficient to get the kid to do the chore, we revise the pay. Nagging doesn't teach responsibility, only obedience. And it sours the relationship.
No Reminders. The calendar reminds and ideally, we would not remind beyond that, but that is hard to do.
No Punishment: Never, ever, ever, use other punishment for undone chores. Doing so telegraphs the message that the deal is only a deal until you change your mind. It teaches that the world is an unpredictable place and fairness is less important than your satisfaction. It erodes trust.
No Loans or Advances: If a kid spends all of his or her money, the kid goes without. Making loans or advances available reinforces poor planning. The logical consequence of deprivation suppresses imprudent spending.
Teach Carefully: Teach the kids how you want each chore done carefully. Don't assume they know how to do stuff. They are kids. Poor performance is usually the product of poor teaching.
Check Work Intermittently. Regular checking shifts too much responsibility to the parents. No checking reinforces the fairly natural drift toward reduced work.
Resist Wheedling: Pay for a particular chore is all or none. Do not be drawn into the half-pay for half-done compromise. It only reinforces poor work habits.
Have Realistic Expectations: Do not be over zealous in your standards. A garbage disposal left unrun or a streak in a mirror may be acceptable. Remember that kids are not as able as adults and their efforts should not be judged by the same standards.
Pay On Time and In Full: You and we expect the same from those who employ us; Our kids deserve the same.
Renegotiate Annually: Kids' need for stuff increases annually, the cost of stuff increases continuously, and kids' ability to work increases, usually. Establish an annual contract renewal date and provide additional pay in two forms. The first and smaller of these is a cost of living increase. Simply increase the pay of existing chores. The second and larger increase should come from new chores. Make a list of possible new chores. Include more possible chores on the list that you expect the kids to accept. Also have in mind a range of increased pay that is acceptable to you and stay within your range. Present the list of chores to your kids and give them the opportunity to choose. Provide some practical limits on how much more work is reasonable but don't assign tasks. Before these decisions are finalized, get your kids to negotiate the pay for the new chores. When the decisions are made, make sure everyone understands the new chore description, pay, and frequency of the chore. Revise the calendars.

Make Exceptions for the Exceptional: Occasionally some crisis occurs which deserves special consideration. For instance, when a valuable piece of stuff is stolen or broken by no fault your own kid, you may need to be flexible. Don't confuse rigidity with consistency.

As time goes on you may realize that you left some expenses out of the budge. For instance, we somehow neglected the cost of haircuts despite the conceptual similarity to clothing. Do not place added burdens on the kids' earnings without providing additional pay. Any such addition requires a new negotiation. It is probably best to wait until the annual meeting, but special circumstances might require quicker action. In any case, never change the system without consulting and negotiating with your kids.

We have several other ideas in the "cooker" that have yet to be included in the plan but which we may apply in the future.

Major Extracurricular Expenses: One possible addition to the pay system would be the cost of desired activities such as Gymnastics or Music Lessons. Provided these activities are truly worth the money to the kid, this would be accomplished simply by increasing the monthly pay to incorporate the monthly cost of the activity. A possible pitfall here would be comparisons between kids if one is involved in expensive activities and another is not. In that case, perceived equity might warn against this idea.

Shared Utility Savings: Another idea comes from an article we read a couple of years ago. This parent had reduced the family's' utility bills by providing her kids with incentives to conserve. She calculated the average monthly gas, electric, and water bills over several years. Each month the bill fell below the average for that month, the difference was divided equally between the kids and the parents. If monthly use exceeded the average, do nothing. You could not fine the kids without introducing punishment in an otherwise punishment free system. This would also require adjustments for rate increases. We think this is an excellent idea but have moved too often in the last few years to have meaningful averages.

This, of course, is a framework described with some of the details that have been useful to us. Different kids and families have different needs and a system must be tailored to those needs. For instance, extended vacations with non-custodial parents, club dues, charitable contributions, among other expenses might be included. In any case, there are a few basic and crucial factors to keep in mind. Involve the kids in the decisions, make the incentives meaningful, be consistent, reasonable and fair, and avoid punishment.

Our system has been remarkably effective for our family. We have far fewer conflicts with our kids than before, their judgment in spending has improved considerably, and both seem to be developing real work ethics. The longer term goals are, of course, more difficult to assess, but the feel of the family is that we are on track toward them. And the kids still get plenty of stuff.






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