When I was growing up, I never received a regular allowance. Whenever my friends sported new shoes or touted concert tickets, I always felt compelled to ask: “Did you really pay for that with your own money??” Of course, the answers erred overwhelmingly on the side of “No.” If not, I would come to learn that it was through an allowance from their parents that my peers could afford such luxuries. This always evoked a sense of jealousy in me, as my parents never chose to indulge me this way; any money that passed through my hands was earned.
Many cultures that value hard-work over coddling may see the unfounded giving of money to children as a harmful practice, as it is more likely to spoil a child than teach him or her values of earning and equity. Through the lens of Boasian anthropology, allowance could be viewed with historical particularism in mind. Instead of evaluating the phenomenon broadly, especially in comparison to other cultures that are not so pampering, it must first be considered with specific cultural context, taking into account the history of the United States. As a country we have enjoyed a remarkable level of prosperity and high living standard as compared to countless other societies and civilizations of the past. As such, the practice of giving an allowance may be more justifiable to a Boasian anthropologist, as Americans have generally lived well, with funds to spare, and have had the opportunity to lighten up to the idea of allowing their children to practice handling money at a young age.
From the viewpoint of structuralism, the notion of an allowance makes even more sense. Considered the founder of structuralism, Lévi-Strauss had several ideas about the human mind. Of those, one particularly relevant concept is that gifts bind both the giver and the recipient in a continuing social relationship. Although a parent and child already maintain an inherent relationship, the act of giving an allowance could be interpreted as the parent nurturing and enhancing his or her relationship with the child. Gifting money can easily fall into Lévi-Strauss’ concept of binary oppositions, where the allowance is conceptualized as support, and its binary opposite as negligence. Because they are considered subconscious, these patterns of thought are elemental in explaining why the practice of giving an allowance may feel so natural to many American parents.
Both Boasian anthropology and structuralism present intriguing ways of interpreting the practice of allowances. To the Boasian anthropologist, historical particularism explains why the practice has developed: Americans have enjoyed marked prosperity, and hence have been more disposed to teach their kids about how to save and spend money early on. To the structuralist, foundational ideas and binary oppositions explain why the practice of giving allowances is conducive to a positive relationship between the parent and child. In both cases, the theories seek not to judge the cultural practice at hand, but to analyze it objectively and seek understanding from within.
— Reese J.