How Getting A Job Taught My Kid All The Things I Could Not

by Kathleen Thometz
Originally Published: 

With the advent of every summer break, you see a slew of articles about how important it is for teens to get summer jobs. Then you’ll read about the authors’ experiences working at various dirty jobs: lifting heavy things at a foundry, working as an untrained home health aide and shoveling sewage at the town dump. We all know that everyone in our generation walked 10 miles to school each day, and our parents walked 20. For my oldest child, getting a job accomplished all of the things that my husband and I wanted for him but couldn’t get by cajoling, threatening or punishing him.

When Peter was 16, he had a learner’s permit, bad grades and a strong desire for his driver’s license. Withholding that license was the only leverage we had over him. This same child, while loving, funny and helpful, had been grounded the first half of his freshman year of high school and tested for learning disabilities as was the thing to do at that time. After his sophomore year, we sent him kicking and swearing to a summer boarding school in New Hampshire. He had to live in a tent and go to school six days a week. It worked temporarily, but by the second half of his junior year he was back to his same antics, producing Ds and Fs. He desperately wanted his driver’s license and swore he was the only junior he knew who didn’t have one.

My husband and I gave him two options. Get your grades up to all Bs or get a job, one or the other, then you can get your license. Junior year ended and he earned subpar grades and never looked for a job. The third day of his summer break he put on a collared shirt and headed out to search for employment. After a week with no luck, he was very dejected. I felt bad and began driving with him around the towns near us. I’d sit in the car and give encouragement. Sometimes I’d follow him in because I was curious about the place. I’d often come out glad he didn’t get a particular job. “Would you really work in that women’s secondhand shop? It looks awful.” I once said.

“Yes, Mom, I’ll work anywhere someone will give me a paycheck,” he responded.

He got desperate enough to start listening to his father’s job advice. He’d follow up with a phone call and a written thank you note. He called his employed friends and ask for introductions to their bosses. My husband got him business cards, which my son would attach to his job applications. When he walked out of his 40th business, a high-volume restaurant in our area, he was dejected. My heart broke for him. “Mr. Palmer, the owner, wasn’t there so I left an application with my business card.”

“I know this seems bad, but you only need one offer,” I said. “It’s like selling a house or finding a spouse, one buyer, one accepted marriage proposal.”

On the ride home, he offhandedly mentioned that a waitress at the restaurant told him that if he was available in the mornings there might be something. A stroke of luck, I thought, as I suggested he call first thing the next morning. He was resistant but did make the call and happened to get to the owner. “I’m sorry, we don’t have anything.”

I felt like I had been turned down. I just wanted to cry. Stoically he went back to his room to do more research.

Ten minutes later the house phone rang, and it was Mr. Palmer, the owner of the restaurant who had just turned him down. “Hi, may I speak to Peter?”

Didn’t this guy just tell him he had no positions? I raced upstairs with the phone.

I heard Peter talking and then he came downstairs, a little straighter and with a spring in his step.

“I have an interview this morning.”

I drove Peter to the restaurant and waited outside. Minutes later, my phone pinged and his text read, “I got it!” He got in the car, and we dashed off to a celebration breakfast. He left home that morning a desperate yet hopeful boy and returned an employed young man. As promised, we headed to the DMV and he got his license. I’d never seen a prouder and happier kid.

He worked the entire summer and throughout the next year. While his work ethic grew strong, his grades did not, and that showed up in his college acceptances. Disappointed with his choices, he put his nose to the grindstone during his eighth semester, and with our counsel, applied for a gap year after high school. He applied to new colleges and would go the following year.

The summer after his gap year in Central America, he worked two jobs. He discovered that once you’ve worked at one real job, it’s easier to get another, and he was hungry for independence and money. At the end of the summer, he went off to college, surprisingly to one that did not accept him in the first round but agreed to re-interview him during his gap year break. His freshman year he got great grades and pursued and got a paid internship out in California for the summer.

Getting a real job, on his own, changed my son’s life. It was something he achieved by himself. It showed him that with perseverance, planning, coachability and a little bit of luck, you can accomplish your goals. When his younger brother asked if he would help him get employment, he laughed, “Sure. Pound the pavement. Walk into 40 businesses, and you’ll get something.”

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