Parents' guilt + kids' costly ways = big allowances

Forget hoarding your allowance for marbles and hula hoops, or pinching pennies for a Friday milkshake at the five-and-dime. And Pound Puppies? Transformers? So Gen-X.

Ten-year-old Katherine Spangler has saved $450 for a laptop; her 12-year-old brother, Jon, just spent $300 on new rollerblades – after selling his X-Box, bike, scooter, old rollerblades, old skateboards, and a drumset at an April garage sale.

The Spangler siblings are part of the high-rolling "tween" demographic: 9- to 14-year-olds, with an average weekly income of more than $20.

A child-indulgent culture and economic boom have inflated the good old allowance. Besides making retailers drool and older generations roll their eyes in envy or disbelief, tween financial wherewithal is reshaping childhood itself, say some.

With more parents working, and their schedules stretched thin, guilt has settled over American households, and the fallout is a financial bonanza for tweens. Today's tweens were raised on the mantra of parent-child communication and media images of youth consumerism – which stoke a thriving sense of entitlement, say experts. It's a demographic primed to ask for more.

Cultural rituals, such as increasingly elaborate birthday parties and bar mitzvahs, and high-tab kids' entertainment, such as lasertag and sprawling cineplexes, showcase childhood's escalating cost. A diminished emphasis on savings, burgeoning displays of eye candy, and myriad enticements to impulse shop have sabotaged the penny-pinching sensibilities of "Leave it to Beaver": To many tweens, money is something that spills from ATMs.

It's a generational shift, says Robert Billingham, a family and human development expert at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., and a 50-something father of four. Comparing his own adolescence with his parents' World War II-era youth, he finds a dramatic change: " 'What can I wear to the prom?' versus 'Are the Germans going to take over America?' " Because the world seems secure, he says, "we are giving more to our children without this idea that they should ... earn it. Not so many generations ago, the idea was that parents didn't owe their children anything."

A decade ago, tweens earned $6 a week, says James McNeal, of marketing consultant McNeal & Kids. As of 2000, his studies show, the average income for tweens was $22.68 a week – 43 percent of that from allowances, 21 percent from parent and grandparent handouts, 11 percent from work outside the home, and 25 percent from household chores.

Jon and Katherine Spangler get weekly allowances of $12 and $10, respectively – it's based on their age, $1 per year. Jon says allowances vary widely among his Southern-California friends: One gets $20, with no chores attached; others "don't get any, because their parents don't think it's a good influence – you'll never get money just for being alive."

Experts say it's more common now for kids to receive money as gifts – and allowance supplements abound. Mary Spangler, Jon and Katherine's mom, estimates she doles out an extra $25 a month to each child for movie tickets, snacks, and spur-of-the-moment expenses. Wendy Leopold, mother of 14-year-old Cary Smith in Evanston, Ill., dispenses about $25 a week – but Cary gets no regular allowance.

The easy money for kids has a lot to do with the 'affluenza' of the 1990s, says Carleton Kendrick, a Boston-based family therapist for LearningNetwork.com. The booming economy made it "harder for parents to go out and buy their goodies ... and then [say no to] kids coming with extended palms and saying, 'What about me?' That's a quantum paradigm shift – kids seeing money virtually as their birthright."

Birthright, indeed. Marvin Goldberg, a marketing professor at Penn State, helped develop a Youth Materialism Scale (YMS) that ranks 9- to 14-year-olds on a continuum of greed. For Christmas, according to his recent study, highly materialistic tweens expect parents to spend an average of $182 on a gift; those at the low end of the scale expect an average of $124. They're only slightly less acquisitive on birthdays, anticipating gifts from $74 to about $116. Boys, he notes, tend toward a higher materialism score than girls.

"By [the time kids reach] middle school, you sometimes feel like you're nothing but a wallet and a set of wheels," says Ms. Leopold.

Today's brand-happy tweendom may herald a sociological rift. With the wide cultural reach of TV and the Internet, says Dr. Goldberg, children join the economic system far earlier – merging into the adult world, and dissolving childhood's financial naivete. This, he continues, recalls the Middle Ages, when kids wandered freely in the grownups' realm.

"Childhood is not an immutable constant," he warns. "To the extent it was created economically and socially, we can change it – and that seems to be what's happening."

Among 1,000 9- to 14-year-olds, Goldberg found little change over the tweenage years in kids' commercial expertise: They were as savvy at 9 as they were five years later. That, he says, is a sign not only of early market acumen, but of truncated youth.

In family demographics, too, today's tweens are at the center of a quantum shift. More often than not, they live in single-parent or blended families; when two parents are present, they're often both working. With adults low on time, and children high on entitlement, hair-trigger munificenceis a function of guilt. Mr. Kendrick calls tweens' bulging piggy banks " 'I'm sorry' money: 'I'm sorry I'm not home more; I'm sorry we don't have dinner as a family.' "

Paradoxically, many families give children more money even as they're strapped for cash – leading, sometimes, to children being used as badges of wealth. It's a phenomenon fueled by easy credit, and made more urgent by a growing sense of the divide between 'haves' and 'have nots.' "There's a more desperate feeling on the part of parents who would fall into the have-not category to fork over money that they don't really have to their children, in a desire to say, 'My kid is not going to go without,'" Kendrick says.

Despite kids' increased cashflow and a greater sense of parent-child communication, there is a general taboo on discussing money, say Jon and Eileen Gallo, Los Angeles parents who co-wrote the book "Silver Spoon Kids."

"Parents recognize that money is a subject they need to talk about with kids," says Mr. Gallo, "but they remain uncomfortable doing it, mostly because they got reared by parents who were uncomfortable [talking about money]." This money taboo, say the Gallos, keeps families from teaching savings, philanthropy, and spending patterns that match one's values.

With tweens today urged, by necessity and by culture, toward self-reliance, they increasingly sense that spending decisions are up to them. Children's TV programming heightens that fiscal independence, says Susan Mackey, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern University's Family Institute. That programming lacks adult role models and focuses on heady, hedonistic child-dominated worlds, she says. The underlying message is "that parents are doofuses, and you really ought to listen to yourself, or to your friends," she observes.

On his own future philosophy of money, Jon says he'll give his kids an allowance – and pay for all skating and sports equipment – but not help out with fads like Pokemon cards.

"I wouldn't give my kids $20 a week," he says, "unless they were doing something incredible."

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