“I Got My First Paycheck!” The Value of Work in Kids’ Lives


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 who played numerous sports but also worked 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 that 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 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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One Response to “I Got My First Paycheck!” The Value of Work in Kids’ Lives

  1. Kita says:

    I love this! As we discussed today, it’s so important!

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