Should Your Teen Work?

Research suggests that kids who work during the school year may be cheating themselves. Here's how parents can help.


According to the U.S. Department of Labor, by the time they are 17, nearly 40 percent of all American teenagers will be employed during the school year. Conventional wisdom has it that working is good for teens -- it builds character, instills responsibility, teaches time management. Although studies have shown that summer employment is almost always good for kids, virtually all research on adolescent employment during the school year indicates that the same does not hold true for school-year employment.

"Most teenagers have jobs that are dull, monotonous, and often stressful. Our research shows that employed teens tend to express cynical attitudes toward work and endorse unethical business practices," says Dr. Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia and author of The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting (Simon & Schuster, 2004). Among working high schoolers, research shows high rates of job-related misconduct, such as stealing from employers and lying about the number of hours worked.

To be sure, some kids work to contribute to their future success, says Dr. Elizabeth Berger, spokesperson for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and author of Raising Children with Character (Jason Aronson, 1999). "They use the money to pay for the bus or put gas in their car, save for college, contribute at home. They enhance their identity and self-respect from helping out," says Berger.

Although economic background can impact how work affects them, so too does the type of work kids do.

"Kids who work at certain jobs, especially menial ones, increase their exposure to a whole set of risk behaviors they might otherwise not experience," says Dr. Robert Blum, professor and chair of the department of Population and Family Health Sciences in the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, and past president of the Society for Adolescent Medicine. Substance abuse, early smoking, and precocious sexual behavior are all risks.

And parents are often blind to the issue of where kids are working, says Blum. While some are likely to check out their offspring's school, summer camp, and friends, they may not investigate where their teen spends his working hours. Very often, they've never even visited their child's job site. It's a realm over which parents have little interest and almost no control, says Blum.

Getting Started

There are ways teens can find work that encourages greater responsibility and all the other qualities parents hoped an after-school job would instill. But finding that kind of work, and steering kids away from work that may be a detriment, requires taking a hard look at the teen workplace. It also requires parents to understand the nature of the work their children do. Here's how to get started.

Ask Why They Need a Job

If your teen comes to you asking permission to work, it's important to identify the primary motivation. There's no doubt that many teens come from families where money is tight, so it may be essential for them to work. Or they may have already identified a specific ambition and found a job, such as a local internship, that will let them pursue that ambition. But wanting to get a job at the mall because that's where all her friends work or because she is entranced by the idea of earning extra pocket money are not the best motivators for working. Rather than place importance on the goal of working to buy stuff, parents should try to turn the emphasis away from materialism and toward personal fulfillment. "Working may enrich a child's wallet, but it can impoverish her in other ways," says Berger.

Scout It Out

As obvious a precaution as it may be, many parents do very little investigation into the nature of the jobs their kids have. This can lead to kids being exposed to dangerous or unchallenging work environments, questionable authority figures, and worse. Besides asking their kids questions about the nature of their job and the kind of work they do day to day, parents should go and check out the job site, preferably on a day when their child isn't working. Blum suggests parents set up a time to meet with their child's manager to determine what kind of person he is and whether their child is under the supervision of a responsible adult.

Set a 20-Hour Rule

What is absolutely essential, all adolescent experts agree, is regulating the number of hours a teen works weekly during the school year. Steinberg and other experts recommend no more than 20. More than that, and they're in danger of becoming overcommitted and overstressed.

"Youngsters who work more than 20 hours are absent from school more, are less likely to participate in extracurricular activities, report enjoying school less, spend less time on homework, and earn lower grades," Steinberg says. "This occurs both because teens who are less interested in school choose to work longer hours and because working longer hours leads to disengagement from school."

Remind Them of Their Priorities

If a teen must work, "it's up to the parents to place their job in the proper context. Tell kids that their first business is school. Work comes in second, always," says Blum. If there seems to be a conflict or grades decline, the job goes.

Don't Automatically Forbid Them from Working

Despite this glum picture, working can have its upside. "Some teens are not tremendously motivated about their future," notes Berger. "They have time on their hands that they are not putting into schoolwork. These kids might get into mischief if they didn't have some employment to fill up their time and give them a sense of worth." The trick is finding a job that gives the teen some measure of responsibility, such as babysitting or assisting a manager. "In jobs where kids are given a good deal of genuine responsibility, allowed to make decisions, and perform challenging tasks, they're likely to come away feeling competent," Steinberg notes. While many teen jobs carry a certain amount of menial tasks, such jobs as custodial work, fetching coffee, or making copies should account for less than half of the work day. Or if kids are required to do menial tasks, they should be offset by at least one or two involved projects, requiring them to be accountable for results and carry tasks through to completion. Such a balance keeps the overall job from becoming tedious and uninspiring.

Help Them Explore Alternatives

Remind your teen that there are many definitions of "work" and not all of them revolve around punching a clock. "She can get a sense of self-worth by tutoring or mentoring a younger child," Blum suggests. Volunteering on any level can make a child feel important. Another way kids learn responsibility is by pitching in with extra chores, for which parents might consider paying them wages.

Keeping Track

"Young people who are serious about their education are pretty much worked to death with academic demands," says Dr. Elizabeth Berger. "It's a tight squeeze, given that modern kids are also expected to be involved in community service, athletics, clubs, student government."

To make sure your child isn't becoming overscheduled, have your teen account for all the hours he spends in a given week. He can do this with a calendar, day planner, or just a blank sheet of paper. Once he's accounted for his hours, both of you need to answer these questions:

  • How many hours are spent on school (including homework)?
  • How many hours are spent on extracurricular activities (not job-related)?
  • How many hours are spent on his job (including time getting ready for work and commuting to and from the job)?
  • How much actual free time does he have?
  • How many hours is he at home with the family?

Drawing up a schedule can help you both see just how easy it is to become overcommitted. And if your child doesn't have enough time for himself, he can also use the schedule to start figuring out how to whittle down the hours spent working and doing numerous extracurricular activities.

Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, October 2004.

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