The practice of giving children allowances developed in the early twentieth century when children's purchases of movie tickets, candy, and toys raised concerns about their spending habits. During the Progressive Era (1890s–1920s), allowance advocates recommended giving children a regular but fixed supply of money to inculcate respect for money. Though not the first to advocate allowances–Lydia Maria Child had endorsed allowances to encourage benevolence and fiscal responsibility as early as 1831–Progressive-era child-rearing authorities joined a much larger chorus calling for new money training regimes in women's magazines and parental advice literature.
Allowance proponents believed that lessons in wise spending taught fiscal restraint better than habitual saving. This put them at odds with traditional thrift advocates who valorized saving as a virtue in itself and favored school savings bank programs that made compulsory saving part of the public school curriculum. Nevertheless, allowance proponents and school savings bank enthusiasts both embraced principles of scientific management and behaviorist child rearing that emphasized the importance of system, regularity, and routine to habit formation. Just as advocates of scientific mothering sought to rationalize infants' habits of feeding, sleeping, and toileting, allowance proponents sought to rationalize children's economic habits.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the public culture of dating and mass recreation intensified family conflicts over spending. Middle-class families faced stepped up demands for spending money, while working-class families found it more difficult to claim their children's wages without granting them a greater share of their own earnings. Child-rearing authorities promoted allowances as a means of modernizing and democratizing the family. Allowances were children's entitlement to their share of the family's resources and psychological compensation for their prolonged dependency.
Viewing allowances as a strictly educational tool, child-rearing authorities criticized using allowance money as a payment for household chores, a reward for good behavior, or a punishment for delinquencies. Doing so, they argued, confounded principles of duty and family obligation with the principles of the marketplace. In place of parental surveillance and parental admonitions, child-rearing experts advised giving children responsibility for their own spending choices as well as their spending mistakes. Granting children such autonomy, they argued, helped children to improve their taste and develop habits of saving as they learned to forgo candy and cheap trinkets in order to purchase more expensive goods. This was in keeping with John Dewey's idea that education should be molded to the individual child. These child-centered means served adult-approved ends as children learned to spend wisely within a budget.
Allowances continued to garner support during the Great Depression, partly as a means to moderate children's demands on limited family resources, but also because spending itself came to be seen as vital to economic recovery and emotional well-being. Children's consumer desires were now evidence of a well-adjusted personality and excessive thriftiness a sign of a lackluster imagination.
Statistics suggest that parents increasingly used allowances to allocate family resources. According to a 1936 survey, nearly 50 percent of children from professional families received allowances–an impressive increase over the single-digit percentages that typically prevailed at the turn of the twentieth century–while 28 percent of "semi-skilled" workers and 12 percent of "slightly skilled" workers gave their children allowances. The rising standard of living in postwar America made children's allowances both more common and more generous. Allowance rates climbed substantially after 1960, when a Seventeen magazine survey indicated that the average teenage girl had a weekly income of $9.53. A 1999 Rand Youth Poll found that the typical weekly allowance for thirteen to fifteen year olds ranged from $30.50 to $34.25.
Although children's economic clout has risen dramatically, the case for allowances has changed little since the GreatDepression. Child experts continue to argue that children with allowances learn fiscal restraint while children without master only how to manipulate family breadwinners. It is not clear how much parents are themselves guided by expert opinion. Though an educational tool in theory, children's allowances are commonly viewed as an economic entitlement–a sign that twenty-first-century American children perhaps owe their spending power more to the tenets of family democracy than to concerns about inculcating wise spending.
See also: Child-Rearing Advice Literature; Consumer Culture.
Benson, Susan Porter. 1998. "Gender, Generation, and Consumption in the United States: Working-Class Families in the Inter-war Period." In Getting and Spending: European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century, ed. Susan Strasser, Charles McGovern, and Matthias Judt. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Zelizer, Viviana. 1985. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. New York: Basic Books.
"Allowances." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/children/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/allowances
"Allowances." Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. . Retrieved March 24, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/children/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/allowances
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