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Money for nothing?

Even the experts aren't united on the value of an allowance

Gabrielle Ginn (with her mom, Ann-Marie, and brother, Alex) collects an allowance but asks, 'Shouldn't I have to do something to earn my money?
Gabrielle Ginn (with her mom, Ann-Marie, and brother, Alex) collects an allowance but asks, "Shouldn't I have to do something to earn my money? (Globe Staff Photo / Mark Wilson)

As a word, narcissism is not typical to a 9-year-old's vocabulary. As a concept, 9-year-old Gabrielle Ginn of Amesbury has it down cold.

Gabrielle gets a $3 weekly allowance. While she likes dividing it up into three jars she and her mother decorated -- a savings jar, a giving jar and a spending jar -- she's uncomfortable that money comes to her with no strings attached.

"I think it would be better if I had to do chores for my allowance," she says. "Shouldn't I have to do something to earn my money?"

That decidedly grown-up attitude is what's missing among today's college students, according to a recent analysis by a professor at San Diego State University. Based on a nationwide study that has been repeated periodically since 1982, Jean Twenge unflatteringly describes today's collegians as the most narcissistic and self-centered in decades.

Could no-string allowances be part of the problem?

"The parents of today's college kids were among the first generation where both parents worked," says clinical child psychologist Ron Drabman of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. "Some compensated for lack of presence -- and I include myself in this -- with a no-string allowance. It assuaged the guilt."

He has seen the results play out over the years in many ways, including with his own daughter, now 26, whom he supported for longer than he anticipated, and in the students he teaches -- first among graduate students and increasingly among undergraduates. "There's a joke among faculty that kids today want the life now that previous generations were willing to save for tomorrow. If parents won't foot the bill, these kids are willing to go into debt to pay for it. No brick bookcases and spool tables for them," he says, a reference to the modest-1960s style of college-apartment furnishing.

The self-esteem movement of the '80s and '90s, when children were praised for everything from their poops to their projects, also contributed to a sense of entitlement, says Stanford developmental psychologist Carol Dweck . "In its extreme, we got into this pattern of praising and giving to children without any particular effort on their part. It led to a 'I'm a special person, money should just come to me' mentality."

Drabman's advice to parents is unequivocal: "Allowance should be contingent on work. You want to teach kids that there is a relationship between work and money, and you want to implant that lesson starting when they are young, 4 or 5." Co author of "A Practical Procedure for Instituting a Chore and Allowance Program for Grade School Children," he recommends starting with small chores, such as setting and clearing the table. "You don't make it into a power struggle. They do the chores, they get the money. No chores, no money."

Dweck disagrees.

"Too many parents set up a system of allowance and chores and then have no consequences for when the chores don't get done. They end up doing the chore themselves, or they take pity and shell out the allowance anyway. That's permissive, indulgent parenting at its worst, and it creates the highest level of entitlement," says Dweck. A specialist in self-concept and self-esteem, she is the author of "Mindset, The New Psychology of Success."

On the other hand, withholding allowance for not doing a chore isn't a panacea.

John Weisz of Newton is willing to give his 14-year-old daughter, Tami, a $20 weekly allowance. In return she must keep her room clean and do her homework. More weeks than not, she gets no allowance. So far, not doing the chore is more attractive to her than having spending money. Her father says she tells him she doesn't care about it.

Weisz says the consequence of holding the line -- no chores, no money -- has been more painful for him and his wife than for Tami. "We'd like to teach her the concepts of earning and saving, and we'd like to see her be able to go to a movie, or buy lip gloss when she wants. We're very conflicted," he says. A child psychologist and president of the Judge Baker Children's Center, he says what he's learned most from the experience -- Tami is the youngest of four children -- is that an allowance system that works for one child may not work for another. His oldest daughter, for instance, wanted her allowance deposited into a bank account. "She was meticulous about keeping track of every penny," he says.

The potential for a power struggle is one reason Dweck doesn't like to link chores to allowance. "Parents who don't end up caving, end up painted into a corner," she says. The child ends up with all the control.

In other situations where allowance is tied to chores, instead of learning the lesson parents hope for, that work leads to reward, children's take-home is that everything has a price. "It can create a dynamic where they won't do anything unless they are paid for it," Dweck says.

Her solution is a no-strings allowance with an expectation that children will do specified chores as their contribution to the family's well-being. If chores don't get done in the anticipated time or fashion, the allowance isn't affected, but some privilege is.

At the Sheppard home in Westford, that's what happened last week when 15-year-old Lynsey didn't straighten her room on schedule. She still got her $10 allowance, says her mom, Wendy, but her phone privileges were revoked for the week.

"I want to teach the kids how to manage money, but I also want to convey the idea that you contribute to the family because you are a part of the family," Sheppard says. Lynsey's sister, Samantha , 12, gets $5 allowance. The 10-year-old twins don't yet have an allowance but can earn money by doing bigger chores, such as shoveling and yard work.

Gabrielle Ginn enjoys the ritual of the savings/ spending/ giving jars. Every so often, she and her mother, Ann-Marie, and 5-year-old brother, Alex , who doesn't yet get an allowance, take the accumulated savings to the bank and the giving funds to an animal shelter or food pantry. With spending money, Gabrielle will buy Webkinz and American Girl accessories.

Her mother has no complaints, either. "She's great about helping out. She even brings in the groceries without being asked," Ginn says. Still, Gabrielle thinks tying chores to allowance would make her more responsible. "Like remembering to take care of the cat," she says.

What if it didn't? What if she lost her allowance one week because she didn't do her job? She mulls that over.

"Maybe this isn't such a good idea, after all," she says.

Contact Barbara Meltz at