Banks are giving their youngest customers more responsibility for managing their own money.

Of course, banks have been offering savings accounts to children for decades. But usually, parents or other adult guardians are asked to help manage those accounts as co-signers.

Now some institutions, like Dime Bancorp in New York and Norwest Corp. in Minneapolis, are giving children more freedom-letting them make their own deposits and withdrawals, sending them statements, and in Norwest's case actually giving them access to cash through automated teller machines.

Bank executives said children's programs can help teach the importance of managing a bank account properly. But they are also designed to win more business from the entire family.

"It's sort of the McDonald's school of banking," said David Totaro, chief marketing officer at Dime. "It's a way of indirectly approaching the family."

Dime collects deposits from school-age children up to grade six right in their classrooms. Over 25 grade schools, public and parochial, participate.

Students bring their deposits to class and record them on a computer. A Dime branch representative then picks up the money and the computer diskette and brings them to the branch for processing. The minimum deposit to open the account is $1, and Dime charges no monthly fees.

Norwest has a different approach. The bank waives its standard monthly fees for its basic savings account for people under the age of 18. The minimum initial deposit is $1.

But unlike most other institutions, Norwest also gives children cash cards they can use to make withdrawals of up to $25 per day with their own personal identification numbers. Children can also buy their own EE Series bonds or a Norwest brokerage money market fund.

Norwest's youngest customers have, by some reports, embraced retail banking with enthusiasm. "Some of the kids call the phone center six and seven times a day to check on the money in their accounts," said Theresa Morrow, a bank spokeswoman.

Some banks require parents or guardians to maintain their own accounts in order for children to use the special services.

"It's an associated account," said Paulette Cross, senior vice president for marketing at George Mason Bank in Fairfax, Va., which has that policy. "We see it as a relationship with the whole family."

George Mason's children's program offers no-fee accounts to people up to age 13 for a $1 minimum initial deposit.

But at Bank of New York Co., the decision whether to open an account for a minor is "at the discretion of the individual branch if the minor appears competent," said spokesman Paul Leyden. No co-signer is required. Bank of New York waives its customary fees for its basic savings account and requires a $1 minimum initial deposit.

Co-signers are also not required at Republic New York Co., which offers a no-fee account to people under age 17 for a $2 minimum initial deposit. Children under age 13 qualify for a bank-for-kids program, which includes a quarterly newsletter and tickets to special events at museums and other spots in New York.

All of the banks convert the children's accounts to regular savings accounts-with the standard minimum balance requirements and fees-once the customers reach the age of majority.

By then, however, several years' worth of baby-sitting earnings, paper route tips, and allowances have added up, said bank executives. At Republic, for example, the minimum balance requirement for a basic savings account is $500. "You'd be surprised how many of our kids actually surpass that," said Suzanne Hamilton, program manager for Republic's bank-for-kids program.

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