Less Than Zero

Once upon a time, back when the Forest Service was relatively new, they didn’t hire official fire crews every summer; instead, they would wait until a fire broke out and then hire local people to fight local forest fires. In theory, this was a great idea: the locals were already there, they were motivated to save the forest, and they were very familiar with the area. In practice, though, it was a terrible idea: it led to many, many intentionally caused fires, as unemployed locals soon figured out that the surest way to get a summer job was to set their own forest on fire.

This little tidbit of information was the first thing that came to my mind the other day when I was asked the question: “How much will you pay me to clean my bathroom?”

Immediately I had visions of tubs left unattended to intentionally overflow, towels wadded up and thrown into the corner to purposefully mildew, and toilets drenched with less than stellar aim. In other words, I pictured forest fires being set so that they could be put out for money.

I know that’s not the case, of course: I know that, unlike those unemployed locals, my children are perfectly willing to trash their bathroom with no recompense whatsoever, but still, I’d have to be crazy if I added any more incentive for them to make a pigsty out of the place beyond their own love of filth.

Some parents, I know, feel differently. Some parents think that paying their kids to do “chores” around the house teaches the kids the value of hard work and the joy of earning something with their own labor. (I always snicker at the word “chore.” Where I grew up, this was a term that was applied to milking the goats and mucking out stalls—not unloading the dishwasher.) And, I have to admit, there is some merit in what they say: the only way to truly learn how to balance your finances is to handle—and mishandle—money. Nothing teaches you the value of a dollar like being swindled out of that dollar—especially when (or perhaps only when) you had to earn that dollar yourself. The same goes for buying something you really want with money you had to work hard to earn: there’s no better way to learn how to take care of your stuff than being the one who has to replace it. (It’s amazing how few backpacks get lost in college, as opposed to high school.) So, yeah, I can see the point in paying for chores. However, I have one little problem with this scheme: I can’t fire my kids.

Sure, I can tell them they did a crappy job, and that I’m not going to pay them, but I can’t actually make them put their lolcat day calendars into a file box and then have security escort them out while they do the walk of shame past the other children. (Not that I haven’t dreamt about it sometimes.) No, after I “fire” these particular employees, I’m still stuck living in the office with them—and who wants to live with a disgruntled former employee? Have all of those “Caught in the Act” YouTube videos taught us nothing? The people in those videos only have eight hours a day to put their special little “additives” into the coffeepot: my kids can wreak havoc on this “office” 24/7. (And frequently do, even without the added spite incentive.)

And so, between my children and I, we have come to an agreement quite different than the “paying for chores” model: they do nothing, and I pay them nothing. Or, to continue the Forest Service analogy: I decided to just let it burn.

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