Newly pregnant for the first time, I told my husband I have one requirement for our children: They must get summer jobs when they are teenagers.
My children are only 7 and 4, so for now their summers will consist mostly of cartwheeling, swimming, and perhaps setting up that lemonade stand they’ve been dreaming of since our city was buried under two feet of snow.
When my children turn 14—the age at which they can obtain their working papers in the state of Massachusetts—I plan to do what my own father did with me: sit them down to discuss how they should go about finding a summer job.
I grew up upper middle class, and, thankfully and luckily, my parents’ ability to pay the mortgage did not hinge on my summer employment. But, both my parents came from humble means and were well aware that it was their tenacious work ethic that helped them create a better life for my brothers and me. They wanted to instill that work ethic in their children. Enter the summer job.
My first job was at our local Ben & Jerry’s. The owner told me I sucked at mopping floors. An excellent student, I’d never been told I sucked at anything. At 14 I learned a valuable lesson: I wasn’t so special. I also learned how to mop floors better.
Before I landed my first teaching job at the age of 22, I was a bank teller, a waitress, a preschool assistant teacher, a shoe store employee, a nanny, and a caretaker for a couple living independently with multiple sclerosis. I learned countless lessons: how to deal with cranky people (very few people walk into a bank in a happy mood), how to change a diaper, how to get yelled at (the police chewed me out when I accidentally set off the alarm system at the Bass Shoe Outlet), how to show up on time (the couple living with MS wouldn’t be able to get out of bed if I didn’t show up for my morning shift) and how earning money can often involve many hours of tedious, boring work.
I want my children to learn those lessons, too.
Comedian Louis C.K., the unintentional patron saint of crappy jobs, feels similarly. He once said in an interview about his daughters, “I talk to them about work, and I hope they both have shitty minimum wage retail jobs when they’re old enough.” He rails about the importance of young people doing their “sucky” jobs well in his “Do Your Job 20-Year-Olds” bit. “For two decades, you’ve just been taking and sucking up—education and love and food and iPods; just sucking it up and judging it,” he says. “You have never done anything for anybody, ever.” In a much more, let’s say, colorful way, Louis C.K.’s bit communicates what Marge Piercy’s poem, “To be of use,” does: “The pitcher cries for water to carry / and a person for work that is real.”
I want to give my children the gift of real work.
What about community service, you say, my daughter is going to help build a school in Peru this summer. In my last job before I had my children, I used to help edit the community service section of Teen Ink magazine, where we would publish first-person essays about teenager’s community service experiences. I read hundreds of these submissions, and nine times out of ten the essays oozed with smugness and college-resume building. Look, the pieces would say without saying, I helped these poor people in this poor country. Blech!
Often times, the work involved in these community service experiences is arbitrary. Instead of flying to a Florida beach for spring break, 20-year-old me (smugly) went to Almost Heaven, West Virginia, on a Habitat for Humanity trip organized by my college. I was on the electrical crew, which meant a real electrician spent a week trying to come up with some meaningful work for clueless me to do. The only thing I did that week was staple some wires. This is why when I watched Louis C.K.’s bit mentioned above and he said, “Yes, you went on a school trip to Guatemala and they told you helped, but you totally did not help,” I felt the sting of self-recognition. I should have just worked on my tan.
I’m not saying that there aren’t young people who are genuinely community service-oriented and doing meaningful work. There are, of course. Volunteer positions, however, put them in the role of “savior.” Not that young people shouldn’t ever be in that role; they should. We all should.
I’m just arguing that young adults also need to be placed in the role of “low man on the totem pole.” They need to make the copies and the coffee, pull the weeds, and mop the floor. They need to understand what it takes to make a dollar and how to work with and for difficult personalities. They need to know that no matter the form, working hard and having responsibilities are always honest and good acts.