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When I was in high school, I worked at Ralph’s grocery store in what was then known as the “appetizing department,” but now is simply the deli. I sliced meat, made sandwiches, refilled tubs of potato salad, cleaned the fry machine – it was hard work. I worked alongside middle-aged men, young women and other teenage girls. I wore an orange polyester uniform that always smelled slightly of grease, no matter how many times I washed it. I worked at that grocery store for two years, until a few weeks before I left for college.
Every penny I made went to pay for four things – clothes, gas, going out with my friends and nickel bags of pot.
There was nothing valuable to me about the experience of working there. I never used a meat slicer again in my life, and other than the gallons of freshly squeezed orange juice I drank for free over those two years, it was not the healthiest environment for a teenage girl. Also, it was dangerous – I saw a girl slice off the tip of her finger, and burned my arm on the grill pretty badly. Perhaps if I had been interested in the hospitality industry or had ambition to rise up in the company to a management position, it would have been a worthwhile way to spend my time, but that wasn’t the case.
At that time it was possible to get high school class credit – it was called “work experience” – for part-time jobs. So I made sandwiches instead of taking classes in the afternoons. In the ’70s students could skate by doing as little academic work as possible and still get into college, which I did. Thankfully, that would never happen today.
One of the first things I told my husband when our kids started school (when they were in kindergarten) was that I absolutely did not want them to have jobs while they were in high school. I remember him looking at me like my head was spinning around. Not work? He, like me, had always had jobs, starting with a paper route in Wisconsin in the dead of winter when he was 12 years old.
It was my strong belief that their jobs were to study, participate in extracurricular activities, do some volunteer work, and spend time with their friends and family. Summer jobs were fine – but no jobs during the school year.
I realize that there are families in which the high school kids have to work in order to pay for anything above and beyond their basic activities, wants and needs. My kids weren’t in that situation.
During conversations with other parents about this, I was often told that part-time jobs are essential for teens to learn responsibility and the value of money. Based on my own experience, I felt that part-time jobs did the opposite – since I didn’t have to pay for essentials with the money I earned, and since I wasn’t encouraged to save anything (nor did I ever consider it), I worked 20 hours a week to buy a new outfit every Friday and get stoned.
My kids, on the other hand, learned commitment, discipline, respect and time management from focusing on their schoolwork and extracurricular activities. They spent pretty much every waking hour at school, from early morning until late afternoon, going to classes and practicing or rehearsing. They felt like they were part of something bigger than they were – their school, their community, their league.
At 16 we bought our oldest a car, which our youngest then used when he turned 16 so each of them could drive to and from their activities and I didn’t have to chauffeur them around anymore.
Oh, you might be thinking, they were spoiled. They had everything handed to them, they never had to work for anything.
You would be wrong to think that. Yes, they had it pretty easy financially – but a lot was expected of them. We wanted them to work hard at their schoolwork and chosen activities, and they were not allowed to miss rehearsals or practices unless there was a really good reason – which usually involved them being ill. They knew they were to be here, clean and awake, when family and friends came to visit. They were to come home in the evenings during the week and eat dinner with us. We expected them to take the responsibilities of being high school students seriously.
Once in college, they both found part-time jobs to supplement their allowances. Both graduated in four years and are now living on their own with very little financial help from us.
Would this work for everyone? Not likely. But it worked for us. And I’d do it exactly the same way all over again.
Related post: No, Motherhood Is Not a Job
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