More generally, what part do children play in household production? The general idea that households have lost their economic functions, except for consumption displays, implies another misconception: that children no longer contribute to the household economy. Any household work children do perform, moreover, is expected to build the child’s character or skills, but not seriously help their parents. True, child labor laws did push children out of most wage-earning occupations. True also that children, much like fathers, typically perform fewer household duties than their mothers. Yet household production is not just adult work, nor is it merely an educational device. As soon as we examine children’s contributions closely, we discover their substantial economic relevance for the entire household. Here I concentrate on children age fourteen or younger.
The meaning, organization, contribution, and compensation of children’s work varies systematically and dramatically from one social setting to another. Let us try to identify the principles of that variation. Here is how the overall argument runs:
• Children’s work divides between immediate production of transferable use value and production of material, financial, human, social, and cultural capital. For example, children often work directly in household economic enterprises, but in so doing they acquire skills and social connections that will later serve them in enterprises of their own.
• Some of the capital production remains with the child itself for later transfer, but some of it immediately increases the capital of social relations and groups in which children participate, notably that of their families and households. For example, a child’s stellar school performance enhances not only the child’s own future, but also the standing of his or her family.
• Permissible and forbidden forms of children’s work vary strikingly with the social relations to which they are attached. For example, many parents require their children to weed the family flower garden, but any teacher who required pupils to weed his or her own family’s garden would risk job loss.
• Within each social relation, more precisely, participants and third parties promote proper matching of meanings, monetary media, and economic transactions, including the transactions we call work or production. For example, over a wide range of Western households, parents can reasonably tie allowances to their children’s household work but could not
possibly hire outside children to do the same work for the same rewards.
• Participants also mark the boundaries between different social relations with labels, symbolic representations, and moral injunctions. For example, almost every household makes a sharp distinction between the rights and obligations of children that belong to their household and those of children who count as temporary visitors.
Within those limits, however, children and other persons involved in their work incessantly negotiate the precise matching of meanings, media, and transactions. For example, children across the world bargain with their parents about what clothing, toys, or forms of entertainment they can and cannot buy.
In the United States, children participate in a variety of productive domestic tasks, such as cleaning up their rooms, cooking, dusting, doing laundry, washing dishes, vacuuming, setting or clearing the table, cleaning the bathroom, sweeping floors, carrying out garbage, mowing the lawn, doing yard work, or caring for younger siblings and pets. In fact, recent studies report that American children are spending increasing amounts of their time in such household chores (see Lee, Schneider, and Waite 2003). Children’s marketing specialist McNeal estimates that children in the United States perform 11 percent of total household work (McNeal 1999: 71; see also Goldscheider and Waite 1991).
In most cases, children expect some kind of domestic payment. Parents comply: according to a 2004 survey, a little over half of children in the United States between the ages of six and fourteen, receive a weekly allowance (Jordan 2004). McNeal itemizes five different sources of children’s cash income. In the late 1990s, 16 percent of kids’ income came from gifts from parents, 8 percent from others’ gifts, 45 percent from allowances, 10 percent from work outside the home, and 21 percent from household work. Significantly, he notes that children’s compensation from household work rose to 21 percent from 15 percent in the mid 1980s (McNeal 1999: 69, 71). However, since parents are not standard employers, negotiating suitable payment systems turns into a delicate and highly contested issue. At issue is not merely a wage bargain but a definition of proper relations between parents and their offspring. Indeed, the nature of children’s allowances has excited debate for over a century, with some experts and parents strongly advocating compensation for children’s household work, and others insisting on a separation between work effort and allowances (Jacobson 2004; Zelizer 1985). In the latter cases, allowances qualify not as compensation but as a parent’s discretionary gift or the child’s entitlement. Nevertheless, whether compensation, gift, or entitlement, allowances are subject to continuous bargaining between parents and children.
Negotiations occur over both allowances and other monetary transactions. Parents, for their part, often impose a set of terms, overseeing, and in some cases closely supervising, their children’s expenditures, or else deciding which chores to compensate with money. Some parents give children extra money for outstanding school performance. In these transactions, however, children do not simply echo parents’ preferences for household payments, but work out their own moral views and strategies. The Kids’ Allowance Book, based on interviews with 166 children between the ages of nine and fourteen from eleven schools around the United States, reports a variety of such rationales and strategies. Children, for instance, repeatedly praise regular allowances as welcome sources of discretionary income. Before getting an allowance, Katie explains, “If I wanted a pair of special sneakers, [my parents] might say it’s too expensive and not a necessity. Now that I get an allowance, it they don’t want to pay, I can pay for it myself” (Nathan 1998: 6).
Children divide, however, over whether or not allowances should compensate for their domestic chores, some children insisting that helping out is an expected, fair, and therefore free, household contribution. Others forcefully defend their often elaborate monetized exchanges. Listen, for instance, to Amanda:
On top of all the cleaning and garbage toting Amanda B. has
to do for her allowance, she regularly does freebies like folding
the clothes or setting the table. “If I’m sitting around and my mom asks me to do something, I’ll say sure and won’t ask to get paid,” she says, “I do it to help out.” But if she is saving up for something special, she’ll hunt for a big job that needs doing, such as basement cleaning. Ugh! She’ll ask if her mom will pay extra for it. That’s when the freebie pays off. “Since I’m not always working just for money, when I ask if she’ll pay me to do something extra, she usually does.”
Children report numerous, often intricate, negotiating tips, ranging from how to choose chores (pick your own: “if your mom chooses, she might give you a chore you can’t even bear the thought of doing”); receive a fair wage (find out what other kids earn); make sure parents pay on time (“I remind my dad on the day before, to make sure he has the right change for my allowance the next day”), and get a raise (“no-no’s” include whining, begging, asking for way too much, or not doing chores on time; among the “do’s”: “do lots of stuff to help out and be nice to your brother or sister [if you have one],” and “ask for a slightly bigger raise than you want so you can give in a little and still come out okay”) (55, 52, 20, 46; for other kids’ strategies, see also Consumer Reports for Kids Online and Kid’s Money Web site).
We only have limited information on actual bargaining between parents and children over housework and allowances. The same is true about other categories of children’s productive, money-earning efforts. McNeal reports that children’s income from work outside the home, unlike their increasing pay for household work, has remained fairly stable at about 10 to 13 percent for children under twelve. Children earn by babysitting; raking leaves; mowing lawns; watering plants; shoveling snow; cleaning garages; selling cookies, candies, or lottery tickets to raise funds for school activities or charities; washing cars; taking care of pets; as runners or lookouts for drug dealers; watching cars; or as baggers at supermarkets. More recently, some eleven – and twelve-year-olds have been making money with investments and savings (McNeal 1999: 72; see also Lewis 2001).
In some cases children’s earnings matter greatly for household survival. For instance, in their study of single low-income mothers’ strategies for “making ends meet,” Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein found one woman who, after having lost other sources of kin support, turned to her children: her teenage son’s wages from an afterschool McDonald’s job, plus her thirteen-year-old daughter’s money from baby-sitting neighbors’ children on weekends. Sometimes, they note: “mothers were not sure where their children were getting the money but suspected involvement in petty crime and drug sales” (Edin and Lein (1997: 153). Once we shift our attention outside of households, it becomes clear how many of children’s activities involve different kinds of production—not only household errands and part-time jobs but also volunteer efforts and school work. Most American children in all kinds of households spend a considerable share of their daily effort working.
In immigrant families, children play distinctive parts in household production. In a study of Mexican and Central American immigrants in the Pico Union area of central Los Angeles, Marjorie Orellana observed children involved in a variety of daily work, including “running errands; caring for siblings; cleaning; doing the laundry; taking siblings to school, the library, and other appointments; helping siblings with homework; . . . answering and making phone calls” (Orellana 2001: 374). Especially notable was the extent to which children served their families by caring for younger children (see also Valenzuela 1999: 728). Orellana also reports children’s involvement in wage labor: “selling food, clothes, or other merchandise alongside adult street vendors; helping their parents to clean houses, care for children, or mow lawns; cleaning tables in a pupuseria (a Salvadoran restaurant); sweeping the floors of a beauty salon” (Orellana 2001: 374-75; see also Orellana, Thorne, Chee, and Lam 2001). In her study of Salvadoran immigrants, which likewise documents children’s crucial contributions, Cecilia Menjivar tells the story of ten-year-old Sonia, who went along with her mother, Rosa Maria B. when she cleaned houses: “Sonia helped her clean, but the girl also baby-sat one of her bosses’ children, for which she would get $5 for the six hours that it took Rosa Maria to clean this person’s house” (Menjivar 2000: 218). Meanwhile, in immigrant family-run businesses, children help operate the family’s shop or small business (see, for example, Park 2001, 2004).
Next, let us look more closely at two other categories of children’s productive contributions: translation services for immigrant households and provision of personal care in a wide variety of families. Both cases reveal an impressive variety of children’s labor and illustrate the crucial contributions that children make to the maintenance of their households.