When I was in college, I spent two long, hot summers wrangling teenagers at a 350-acre organic farm in Pennsylvania. The camp focused not on swim tests or tie-dye, but instead the goal was developing kids’ leadership and communication skills. Like most sleepaway camps, this camp drew children largely from cities, kids whose families could afford the sleepaway privilege, as well as many other perks such as private school, international travel, and extracurricular sports.
Typically, the adolescents who came to the Farm didn’t know how to hold a broom, cook mashed potatoes, make their own bed, or feed a cow. Privilege does have its downside in lack of practical knowledge, after all. The kids spent the summer learning these skills, and many other useful talents such as dish washing and weed pulling. Parents – who were delighted by the responsibility their children learned in a few short weeks – used to joke with each other that they paid for their kids to work for the summer.
What shocked me the most was not that parents would pay money to get their kids to work — but how much the kids loved the work. Even when it meant getting up an hour earlier than everyone else to feed the horses. Or cleaning the shower shed for the entire 75-person camp. Or mopping the dining hall floor after dinner so we could have a square dance in the evening.
Even though I was the counselor, I learned a great parenting lesson: kids crave work.
Kids of all ages, and all economic levels, need responsibility in order to feel part of a community. To feel like reliable, independent, capable contributors to their family, their school, their world. When parents of privilege deny kids this opportunity, it feels like we are doing them a favor. But in reality, we’re limiting the development of their self-esteem and life skills.
Which is why your kid, and mine, needs a summer job.
And ironically, although kids tend to benefit from jobs once they get them, they need us to force them out there.
Here are some ideas that have worked for my kids:
- Help your child make a flyer advertising that s/he can do odd jobs, run errands, of babysit. Have them put one in every neighbor’s mail slot for several blocks around your house. Include the hourly rate, your child’s experience, and their contact email (not their phone or address though, for safety reasons).
- Have your child(ren) set up a small seasonal business: a holiday babysitting consortium, lawn mowing, or leaf raking. Again, help them create an ad or flyer to spread the word to neighbors and friends.
- Check with local libraries, summer day camps, sports camps, and even your local government. Many hire teenagers for the summer, sometimes for unpaid internships, sometimes for hourly wages. Some towns even have formal youth employment programs.
- Hire your kids yourself to tackle unskilled jobs you don’t have time to get to, like cleaning out the garage or organizing their younger siblings’ closets. I know one 18-year-old, who’s heading to the Ivy League in the fall, whose job is taking care of his little sister from 8am-6pm every day this summer. Perfect.
- Use summer, and the change in routine, to institute new family chore policies. You can get even little kids motivated through simple rules like: no TV or games until they’ve done three chores. I’ve found it doesn’t matter whether or not kids are paid for their work, although this can be a good motivator, especially if you strengthen the “get a job” message by linking it to the “I’m not a cash machine this summer” message. Especially for the bigger kids looking to save money for a car, or gas, or just to go to the movies.
The payoff: my 13-year-old earned $100 today. I gave her $20 to disinfect four disgusting old cat litter boxes. My neighbor paid her $80 to watch her two six-year-olds for the day. A pretty good haul for someone just a few months into adolescence.
Our kids may not thank us now. But they will later, once they earn a regular paycheck and keep getting promoted for being so responsible and hard-working. And then you will thank yourself.