by Dr. Boyce Watkins
When I was a child, my mother used to make me pay rent. Whatever income I brought into the house wasn’t allowed to be wasted on new clothes, shoes and luxury items. Instead, I had to give her 30% of my income for simply having food in my stomach and clothes on my back.
This seemed harsh to a lot of my mother’s friends and I hated it. In fact, I am not sure how I feel about it today. But what I can give my mother credit for doing is creating a sense of personal responsibility in me at an early age that kept me from believing that life was a big party and that I could make bad choices without dealing with the consequences. It also helped me to realize that I was in control of my financial destiny and had an obligation to contribute to the well-being of those I love.
I also learned that the world owes you nothing. Sometimes, kids believe that their parents are obligated to take care of them, as if they have nothing better to do with their time. Sure, good parents might do that. But if people don’t fulfill their obligations to you (as my biological father did not), you can’t spend your life feeling sorry for yourself.
While I felt that my mother was tough on me, the fact is that her honest revelation that she had a life too shook me out of the kind of self-centered thinking that plagues a lot of our young people. It also made me a helluva lot more appreciative when she did do things for me. Without glorifying my mother’s parental wisdom, I can say that I’ve decided that it’s OK to allow a child to contribute to the household, since most of us benefit from developing a sense of productivity.
So, my recommendation is that a) your child should work for everything they get, starting from an early age. If they are five years old, let them sweep the floor to get money for candy. If they are a teenager, don’t be afraid to let them work a part-time job at a fast food restaurant. Working does build character, and laziness can become a counter-productive addiction. Kids who are asked to be productive are less likely to just hang out with their friends watching BET for 12 hours a day. Also, working teaches them that life isn’t fair and that not everyone loves them as much as their parents.
b) Kids should get accustomed to paying bills at an early age. Take at least 15% (maybe even 20%) of their income whenever they get a paycheck. Put half of the money toward household bills and the other half toward a long-term savings fund that they know nothing about. Surprise them with the money when they head off to college. They can also contribute to their own college fund, it might reduce the likelihood that they are going to party away their opportunities.
Your job as a parent is to prepare your child for adulthood, not to prepare them to remain a child. Adults don’t get to spend 100% of their paycheck on new sneakers, clothes and trips to the movies. We are forced to pay bills, save, invest, and take care of our families. So, given that your teen child is going to be hit with the harsh realities of the real world in just a few years, why on earth would you choose to enable irresponsible behavior? That’s like sending them out into a winter storm wearing a bikini.
It’s OK to let your child know early that they have an obligation to contribute to the strength of the household. This avoids (what we called in Financial Theory), the “Free-Rider Effect,” where a person thinks that they can live good while everyone else does the work. An important piece of being in a productive household is to realize that when you don’t work, someone else is always pulling the weight. Teaching these lessons while your kids are young will make them strong heads of household into adulthood.
Again, I didn’t like the amount that my mother charged me for paying rent, but when I look back, I was financially independent much earlier than most of my friends. In fact, while working three jobs in college and keeping a high GPA, I had more money than nearly all of my friends, I wasn’t a financial menace to my parents, and I was preparing myself for a bright financial future. That was a lot more fun than spending four years inside a liquor bottle.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a professor at Syracuse University and author of the book, “Financial Lovemaking 101: Merging Assets with Your Partner in Ways that Feel Good.” To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.