At breakfast one morning last summer, Stephen, our 15 year-old suggested, “Let’s all go hiking this weekend.  I have a trail I want you to see.  It’s the one we’ve been working on all week.”

Stephen’s comment was notable for a couple of reasons. For one thing, 15 year-old boys don’t tend to enjoy spending more time than they must with their parents, and yet Stephen was requesting a family activity. Secondly, Stephen wanted to show us the work he’d done on that particular trail, a source of pride for him.

For the last two summers Stephen has worked with other teens doing trail maintenance in our county. Each morning the teens met up at 7:30, and after driving to their trail site, began digging, moving boulders, breaking up stumps, building steps, and creating water bars to reduce erosion until 3:30 each afternoon. Each day Stephen returned home tired but happy. This first “real job” has been a good fit for Stephen. Teens have such a surplus of energy, and it seems fitting for them to put that energy toward a good cause and get paid for it.

I have two teens now ages 14 and 16, and all the books I’ve read on adolescents say that kids in this phase want to be taken seriously. Adolescents want to do “real work” that contributes to their family and community. They feel respected when they are doing work that we parents might pay someone to do. Teens are proud when they are working beside adults doing a task that is truly needed.

Figuring Out How to Best Use Summer Vacation

Each spring, I find myself contemplating these factors when I plan for our upcoming summer. Which activities will my kids benefit most from? (This doesn’t mean I don’t ask them what their preferences are, but I like to consider the options beforehand, as well.) As my kids have gotten into the double digits, I appreciate their willingness to take on some kind of paid work each summer. And I often find myself comparing a sports or music camp to a work opportunity when it comes to summer activities.

Parents regularly hear how valuable sports, art, and music are for our children, and we usually have numerous options to choose from in these areas each summer. While I agree that these activities are wonderful for kids in many ways, I don’t think they give adolescents that feeling of doing “real work” which they crave.

In Dave Ramsey’s book written with his daughter Rachel Cruze, Smart Money, Smart Kids, they titled their second chapter, “Work: It’s Not a Four-Letter Word.” They say it’s vital for parents to teach kids “how” to work. And they add:

We teach [our children] to work not for our benefit, but because it gives them both dignity in a job well done today, and the tools and character to win in the future as adults.

Looking Back at My Teen Years

When I think back on what I was most proud of as a teen playing numerous sports but also working at a job, it was that I made my own money working alongside adults. I worked in the warehouse of my stepfather’s camping equipment store when I was 15. (Yes, he started me out at the bottom.) Then for the next two years I worked in his store fitting hiking boots, and selling winter jackets and camping equipment. I remember how good it felt being taken seriously by customers who were twice my age. When I consider those work experiences, I realize I gained knowledge at work that I didn’t get in other areas of my life. I also learned that I never want to work in a warehouse again!

Tween and Teen Job Possibilities

Now as a mom, I’ve encouraged my kids ages 16, 14, and 11 to earn money working in these ways:

In The Secrets of Happy Families, author Bruce Feiler interviews Warren Buffet’s banker who grew up poor, working many odd jobs and starting a number of small businesses as a young person. He mentions that Warren Buffet believes running a business is an important way for kids to learn about all aspects of money and money-making.

Life Skills Kids Gain from Employment

Learning How to Work:

These are all the lessons that most adults forget they themselves had to learn way back when. Show up on time. Look ahead at your schedule and tell your boss if you are going to miss a day. Find someone to cover your shift. Stay focused at work. Ask questions when you don’t understand a new procedure. Don’t talk on the phone or text with your friends while working.

Be Honest When Something Goes Wrong:

Admitting you were at fault is one of life’s harder lessons, but one that working teaches pretty regularly. Kids often need support from parents in this area, however, to learn how to handle or make amends for a mistake they’ve made at work. Recently Daniel, 14, was pet sitting. His client left him a check for the job ahead of time. Daniel put the check in his back pocket and there it stayed until his pants came out of the clean wash later in the week. Daniel wanted his client to know that he hadn’t simply cashed the check and requested another, so he wrote her a note explaining what happened, and included the pulpy pieces of the check in an envelope.

Learning to Read People:

When my friend Sue, now in her 80s, looks back on her work at her family’s restaurant during her childhood, she says this was where she learned to understand people. To do a job well, you must stand in the shoes of other people, such as your boss or customers.  My kids have noticed that many of their clients, for example, prefer their lawns mowed or driveways snow shoveled in a specific way.  They have learned from experience that they’re more likely to be asked back if they follow their client’s preferences.

I Can Do Something I Didn’t Think I Could:

It’s been babysitting that has taught my kids this lesson most often. When you are babysitting and a child you’re watching vomits, you clean it up. You just do. At home you would run screaming from the room, trying not to throw up yourself. At work, it’s another story. Or when a kid in your charge has a diaper explosion, you don’t get to make someone else clean it up. The buck stops with you. When this happened to Stephen, he put the child fully clothed in the bath tub and turned on the water. Not necessarily what I would have done, but he cleaned the child up and learned that he could think on his feet when needed.

Life Isn’t Going to Be Fun Every Minute of the Day:

“That’s why they call it work and you are getting paid for it.” Working at a “boring” job can give today’s overstimulated kids who are used to being entertained the understanding that it’s okay to be a bit bored or understimulated. Some of life requires this and it doesn’t mean something is wrong.

Increased Executive Functioning Skills (Or Getting Those Frontal Lobes Firing):

Work requires many higher level brain functions such as staying organized, managing time, switching focus, planning ahead, remembering details, and learning from past mistakes. When kids have a job, they are being paid to practice these skills (the ones which drove us crazy when they were younger) which will help them at school and home, as well as on the job.

All of these life lessons tend to be learned and re-learned on the job. Because it’s paid work, the client or the boss is more likely to tell the adolescent when they have fallen short somewhere.

A Parent’s Role

Because nothing about this whole parenting phase is as simple as I expected, the above mentioned life skills haven’t come as easily to my kids as I thought they would.  I wish I could just sit back and watch as the life lessons sink in.  But as Dave Ramsey suggests, parents should put the time in to teaching kids how to be good employees. We may need to ask kids regularly at first how work went, and problem-solve tough situations. We also may need to role play certain work scenarios with our children to increase their confidence.

Employers and clients additionally might not always have our kids’ best interests in mind. We will probably need to help our kids advocate for themselves by saying no to parts of the job now and again – for example overtime hours. And staying on top of school work and sleep are other areas teens who work may need some help with as well.

Overall, the fact that kids who work are basically being paid to learn valuable life lessons (even though it does take some parental support) seems like a win-win situation to me.

What was your first job and what lessons did it teach you?

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Teen Interview - Sign HereA little over a year ago, Todd and I were having one of our monthly check-ins about family finances, and we came to the unfortunate realization that our family had more money going out than coming in. Ouch.

The previous month we’d targeted a number of areas in which to reduce spending (cable, some organic foods, some weekly driving), but evidently these cuts were not extensive enough. Because our financial squeeze coincided with our kids taking on and/or pleading to begin various new activities, we decided to look more closely at kid activities for potential cuts.

As we weighed these expenses, 2 activities rose to the surface, showing themselves like a child’s shaggy, summer head begging for a haircut. These were To-Shin Do and Children’s Theater. You know how, as a parent, you often have a love-hate relationship with certain kid activities? It usually has to do with how much driving you do for them, or perhaps how you feel about the coach or other participants, or maybe that particular event has always annoyed you. And although you’ve tried to hide this from your kid, it doesn’t necessarily protect it from rising to the top of family budget cuts. I personally, didn’t feel this way about To-Shin Do or Children’s Theater, but my dear partner may have. Therefore, to the financial spotlight they rose to be scrutinized.

First we decided to have a family meeting to find out how our kids currently felt about these activities. Since we’d already given this issue much thought, we sort of figured that upon offering our kids the option of taking time off, they’d concur. First we laid out the situation for our sons, Stephen, 15, and Daniel, 13, inquiring whether, after 2 and ½ years, it was time to take a break from To-Shin Do, a self-defense-oriented martial art. Emphatically they responded, “Absolutely not.”

We then told them that with the rather high price tag for 2 student memberships, we needed to make some kind of a change in our To-Shin Do regimen. For maybe 10 minutes, we began to work more like those higher-functioning families you read about in books. We put our 5 heads together and brainstormed ideas to bring the To-shin Do price down without taking time off.

A Possible Solution

Since our kids had run a “neighborhood services” business for the past 8 years, they considered offering to clean the dojo (the gym where To-Shin Do occurs) weekly in exchange for a partial scholarship. They also were doing a lot of babysitting, so they thought they could perhaps help teach the younger children’s classes. Additionally, they offered to work at the front desk of the dojo as a barter for a partial scholarship. After making sure that the boys felt comfortable with each of these options, we helped them compose an email to the To-Shin Do director.

It was hard for our sons to wait for the director’s response, but that also confirmed to us how much continuing to train in To-Shin Do meant to them. They each strongly wanted to reach the black belt level, and they were halfway there.

Not long after, we heard from the director. She generously suggested that both Stephen and Daniel could be trained to work at the front desk in exchange for partial scholarships.

Our Daughter’s Situation

Meanwhile our 10 year-old daughter, Annie, confronted a similar situation with her Children’s Theater group. Rather than take a break from theater, she dramatically (as any theater kid worth her salt) insisted that she desperately wanted to be a part of the upcoming musical. So, Annie emailed the theater director mentioning that she’d had experience working with young children since she’d begun her mother’s helper business the previous summer. Annie offered to be a teacher’s helper in the young children’s class in exchange for a partial scholarship.

In Annie’s case, the theater director was also willing to take a risk and agreed to Annie’s offer.


Todd and I were so relieved that these somewhat unorthodox solutions to our financial concerns had been arranged! Additionally, it felt right that our kids were putting in extra time and energy toward something about which they were passionate.

Not Quite as Simple as We’d Expected

My relief lasted for about a week, until my kids began the “work” part of their deals. Don’t get me wrong, it was still very positive, just not as easy and parent-free as I’d initially envisioned.

Daniel, at age 13, was a bit more challenged by working at the front desk than his older brother. He wanted to do it, but there was much to learn – from the computer system, to how to greet people on the phone, to the process for collecting payments. It took longer than I expected to help Daniel learn the ropes of his new position. I was also reminded that teenage boys don’t necessarily come out and tell you what may have gone wrong at work. (At least mine don’t. Please don’t tell me if yours do.) You have to ask the right questions to glean this information.

“Why didn’t you mention that you’d had a hard time collecting a payment last week at work?”

“You didn’t ask.”


The boys and I did quite a bit of role-playing of potential work scenarios (phone and in-person) over the first 4 months of this new work experience. If I had guessed how long I would have needed to work with my sons to help make this work-as-barter venture successful, I probably would have said 2 weeks. On the other hand, it kind of fits with my overall experience of parenting – envision how long you think something will take to teach, and multiply it by at least 5.

Children’s Theater Assistant

Annie’s work with the young kids at the Children’s Theater was only a 4 month commitment. As it turned out, her experience of bartering work for a scholarship was smoothest, likely because she wasn’t required to learn as many new skills.

Soon after Annie began her work, the director told me she was believed this was a true win-win situation since Annie, who was to be a lead role in the musical, could regularly practice the scenes she had with the young children in her class. Additionally, Annie already knew a number of the young girls in her group. And as you may be aware, little girls often semi-worship big girls. Annie was able to harness the big-girl effect to her advantage during this work experience.

A Year Later

It’s actually been over a year since we began these work-as-barter arrangements. Annie’s situation continued as smoothly as it began, with a little bit of do-I-have-to-go-in-again crabbiness on some work days. Her teacher’s assistant position ended once the performance was over. Overall, Annie was proud that she’d been able to help out in this way for herself and for our family.

Stephen and Daniel continue to work the front desk for three shifts a week, plus attend a weekly staff meeting. They are each more comfortable now with the work, though Todd and I continue to periodically check in about how it’s is going. When it’s dark or icy out, the boys can’t bike to work and it requires even more driving on our parts. On the other hand, this work has required the boys to learn a new level of responsibility, as well as some of the ins and outs of a small business.

“So we need to tell them ahead of time when we are going to be out of town?”

Additionally, Stephen and Daniel’s front desk work is definitely “work.” You’re not allowed to do your homework, or check your phone while at the desk (well, Daniel doesn’t have a phone yet, but that’s another blog post.) Basically, it’s not one of those “fun” jobs. Because of this, this experience has helped our sons better understand what work feels like, as well as make a deeper commitment to why they are doing this work in the first place – moving slowly but continually toward those To-Shin Do black belts.

Has anyone made a similar arrangement for their kids?  Leave a comment!

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How Family Meetings Look at our House

October 2, 2014

Summer is definitely over.  Sometimes it feels like we have four seasons in our family – winter, spring, summer, and chaos – or back to school season.  Don’t get me wrong, I love it when my kids return to school, and for the most part they do as well.  But for the last 2 years […]

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Sharing Vulnerability with Kids

February 14, 2014

Vulnerability.  That feeling of being completely exposed, clueless, clumsy in front of others.  Our kids may be better at vulnerability than we adults are.  Growing up requires them (forces them) to learn new skills and experience novel situations all the time.  Heck, every school year is like learning the ropes of a new job with […]

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How a Child Gets from Boredom to Creativity

October 25, 2013

I love the concept that a bored child, if left alone, eventually finds his or her way to creativity.  Whenever I read about this, as a mom I am filled with renewed hope and energy. “I’m going to let the kids be bored!  I can do this.  By the end of today, great things will […]

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Alaska Impressions

September 5, 2013

    “Mama, I’m going to walk in front with the ranger!  I want to hear her tell which berries I can eat.  Oh, and did you see how big the bald eagle’s nest was?!  I spotted the baby birds inside,” Daniel, my 13 year-old, rapidly informed me as he ran ahead along the beach […]

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“You need to talk more in class.” Introverted Kids in Today’s Schools

April 18, 2013

Ashley is an 11 year-old who lives in our neighborhood.  She’s soft-spoken and curious.  Her big brown eyes constantly take in the world around her.  A while back I bumped into Ashley’s mother and we got to talking.  I asked how Ashley’s transition to middle school had gone this year, since our son Daniel had […]

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How to Beat Cabin Fever: The Art of Roughhousing

March 7, 2013

When our middle child, Daniel, was 3 one of the phrases we’d regularly hear was, “Will you roughhouse me please?”  He was so desperate for this kind of play that it was the only time he consistently used the word “please.”  It worked.  Saying please usually does.  I regularly got down on the carpet with […]

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To Err is Human: 5 Ways Your Mistakes Can Make You a Better Parent

February 20, 2013

Please tell me something like this has happened at your house too.  Two weeks ago my husband Todd was sick with a flu that snuck by the flu shot mix this year.  He felt terrible for over a week, poor thing.  One weekend day I’d taken our oldest to an activity while Todd stayed home […]

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Promoting Your Child’s Passions

November 8, 2012

On our vacation to the East Coast last summer, I spent time with my childhood friend, Virginia, and her 4 kids.  Her oldest child, Micah, had just turned 15 when I saw him.  I don’t usually expect 15 year-old boys to be great conversationalists.  And for the most part Micah was succinct, though polite when […]

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