Can bribery be a good thing?

Hilary Wilce

ONE question has been plaguing me all summer - why are my children so much poorer than everybody else's? Which is not to say they're out working the local traffic lights, poking polystyrene cups though drivers' windows and snivelling, "Gahn, mister. Gi'us a cuppa".

Like most children these days they are awash with consumer goods - Rollerblades and mountain bikes, Walkmans and CD players. They wear over-priced trainers and designer-label sweatshirts, have rooms decked out with lava lamps and sound systems, and access to a state-of-the-art computer. Their monthly allowances, if added together, would probably outstrip the annual budget of a small Micronesian nation.

So why is it that when they go out with friends, everybody seems to have more money than them?

This is how it seems to go: a bunch of teens go to town at the weekend. My children may have money to buy a shirt, say, or a CD; their friends stagger away having bought up half the mall. My children's budget stretches to a McDonald's and a movie; the friends seem to be able to fork out for drinks and ice cream all round.

During the week, my children make do with school lunch; the friends always have cash for the kebab shop or coffee house. On holiday, they eke out their modest spending money day by day; their friends come home groaning with gifts and souvenirs.

And this is not just one or two rich kids, nor is it another version of that hoary children's story about everybody having more than you. As a parent I've seen with my own astonished eyes that many of today's 12-and-ups seem to have more disposable income than I do.

So where does it all come from, this ready teenage cash?

Some children obviously have the kind of allowances that most parents would never dish out in a million years. But as I try to point out to mine, family cakes can be cut a million ways, and the child who empties out Miss Selfridge every Saturday, is not necessarily the one who lives high in other ways. Would they like to sacrifice their school skiing trips for more weekly cash in their pocket? Um, no. How about a smaller house, then? Shared bedrooms? No way!

What about birthday money, and unexpected windfalls - important inputs to the teenage bank account. Alas, in our house, this is an area of true poverty. Not only are there no doting uncles and indulgent grannies, there are hardly any relatives at all.

So where else does profit lie? Well, there's divorce, a steady source of income for kids whose parents strive to make up in cash what they fear they're not providing in kind, and there are always the perennial juvenile jobs, like baby-sitting. But perhaps the ripest area for exploitation, these days is bribes - for music practice, keeping bedrooms tidy and for doing well in exams.

After all, if we can contemplate teachers being paid for results why not pupils? Perhaps because - and until recently this was crystal clear to me - exams aren't a job and children doing them are working for themselves.

But this line is getting harder to hold as more parents succumb to the seduction of incentives. Our son might have got nothing more than a gruff "Well done, son" for his GCSE results this summer, but plenty of his peers were out waving their parental pay cheques, or flaunting their computers - a fact he wasn't slow to point out to us.

And what's so terrible about encouraging children to think that hard work might bring rewards? Isn't it, after all, what many of us hope will prove true later in life, as we give our all to our jobs?

And money, as an incentive, works. And anyone who doubts it need only look at Stephen Moore, principal of Modes Study Centre, an Oxford tutorial college, who offered a Pounds 100 prize to anyone who got full marks in a chemistry A-level module which no student had ever cracked before - and found himself Pounds 1,500 poorer.

Meanwhile, back to the thorny problem of how to fund today's teenage lifestyle, and what's a poor parent to do. Go with the flow, and hand over more fivers than is good for either them or you, or keep the purse strings drawn tight and leave them to squirm in the embarrassment of adolescent penury? Set them hours of minimum-wage chores, to drag them up above the poverty line, or deal with every spending crisis as it arises?

I doubt if there any good answers. But if anyone out there knows otherwise, I'd love to hear from them.

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Hilary Wilce

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