The XX Factor

Raising Responsible (Presidential) Kids

I distinctly recall how badly I wanted to make money as a kid. I remember lemonade stands, getting $1 each for ironing my father’s shirts and, later, mowing lawns. I remember the first thing I did with my own money, too: I walked straight to Skaggs Albertson’s, which sold-wait for it-Charlie’s Angels trading cards. I remember once debating between Fruit Stripes gum and a book, and having my mother press me towards the book, which would last longer. I went for the gum, which, according to the commercial, would cause my world to explode into a world of color and produce a talking Toucan. The gum failed me, and I’ve regretted the book ever since.

I’ve also, ever since, thought twice about most purchases, never paid a dime of credit card interest, and understood the basic principals of running a business. I can iron shirts and mow lawns. In other words, my parents succeeded in teaching me about hard work and the the value of a dollar. President Obama says he’s trying to do the same. How impossible must that feel? According to the president, the first couple is working to teach the girls money management with an allowance, and Michelle Obama has famously said that her daughters will continue to make their own beds every morning. But how do you teach a child that work is important and money difficult to earn when it must be obvious that a failure to make those beds would be covered by White House staff? How can you even pretend you’d let a young teen babysit when the Secret Service is never far behind? Realistically, it will be many years before the Obamas really have to, as Mary Elizabeth Williams says on Salon , decide on the right age to leave their kids home alone. Those girls are impossibly privileged. I can easily believe that in some ways, their parents hate that.

But don’t we all feel like our kids had more than we did when we were young? Small toys, cards and candy are so cheap and plentiful that they’re given away. Chores are easier or outsourced or not done at all. (My kids don’t make their own beds, but no one else makes them, either.) And, as one Motherlode reader puts it, what we do do, it’s so much easier to do ourselves. Nearly every kid starts out from a place of privilege: We feed them, dress them, carry them. And then, if we’re not careful, we keep carrying them. It’s hard to recognize, as the Obamas apparently have, that they’re ready to do things for themselves, and even harder to make it happen.

On the NYT blog, a few parents are arguing against the need to have kids do any real work beyond a few jobs packed with positive reinforcement (pillow fluffing? putting flowers on the table?), but most parents have, or say they have, chores for even young kids. I have kids who help out, but this fall we will break out the chore chart for real and give them the age-old opportunity to argue about whose turn it is to load the dishwasher and take out the garbage and maybe even earn $1. At least I don’t have to teach them not to ask their security detail to carry the bag.

Photograph of the Obama family by Mandel Ngan/Getty Images.