When Your Teen Wants a Job

Embarking on that first job requires dedication and responsibility. Is your teen ready?

What to Consider

Out of the blue, your teenaged Ben or Jeri announces the desire to get a job. Ben saw a help-wanted sign at the sneaker shop in the mall. He's particularly enticed by the fact that, as an employee, he can get a 10 percent discount on all those fabulously expensive, gotta-have-'em sneaks.

Jeri would like to work as a cashier at 7-11. She wants to start saving for a car.

It's a big step for a kid, because that world has attitudes and expectations your teen previously may not have experienced.

"Parents and teachers don't fire teenagers, whereas employers sometimes do," says Mitch Spero, PsyD, director of Child and Family Psychologists and a licensed psychologist in Plantation, Florida. "Often, good work in the 'real' world isn't given proper acknowledgment. And, the working world isn't always fair."

How can you judge whether your son or daughter will give a job the commitment, even enthusiasm, that the working world expects of employees? How can you decide whether a job is an enhancement or a distraction in your teen's life?

If your teenager is getting good grades, is meeting household curfews, doing chores -- in other words, if your teen is basically a decent kid -- a job will enhance his or her life, says Dr. Spero.

"For one thing, a job teaches the work ethic," he says. "And these entry-level jobs are certainly a way that teenagers can pay their dues to enter and belong to the working world.

"But it's important for the child to know that working is a privilege. Earning money outside the household is fine, but it must never become a priority above, or go against, the family's values."

Dr. Spero believes that a job can be both a learning experience and a life experience for a teen.

If your teenager gets a job at minimum wage, he or she will soon learn that certain goals can't be reached without first earning a higher education. "That's a learning experience," he says.

But if a teenager wants to explore different areas of employment in order to prepare for the future, that's a life experience, he explains.

"When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a veterinarian. So I took a job in a pet shop, where I earned $2 an hour," Dr. Spero remembers. "I quickly came to the conclusion that I would not have a satisfying future in that level of job, but I might be happy if I earned a doctoral degree, learned business skills, and eventually owned a string of animal hospitals. That was a life experience."

Make a United Front

Before you give the okay for your teenager to seek employment, Dr. Spero recommends that you get together with your spouse to make sure you are of a like mind.

Ask yourselves:

  • Do we both approve of a summer job, or a part-time job during the school year?
  • Do we both agree that our teenager must maintain a certain grade level?
  • Do we both agree that household chores still must be done regularly?

"It's vital that both parents make this decision," says Dr. Spero. "The danger is when one parent thinks a job is fine, but the other doesn't agree. The child then will side with one parent against the other. It's called triangulation, and it should be avoided."

Once you and your spouse are in agreement, progress to the next step: a written, dated, and signed contract with your teenager.

"The three of you will discuss and agree to how many hours will be worked, what grade average must be maintained, which chores will still be done," he suggests. "Get into the real details, too." For example, if you all agree that a C average must be maintained, will you still allow working if your teenager fails in only a single subject, but manages a C average because of good marks in other subjects?

Remain Involved

When your son or daughter actually lands a job, it's important for you and/or your spouse to check it out.

  • Pay a visit. "Initially, transport your child to and from work, so you can see for yourself what the environment is like," says Dr. Spero. "However, don't embarrass your teenager. Let your teen develop his or her own reputation and individuality."
  • Know what to look for. You will want to make sure the premises are clean and safe. Look, too, at the other employees. Do they seem like nice people? Are they the kind of folks you want your son or daughter to spend a lot of time with?
  • Stay attuned. Finally, says Dr. Spero, after your teenager has started working, listen to the way he or she talks about the job. Is it with pleasure and excitement, or does the whole experience sound like a dreary ordeal necessary to earn money? Ask your teenager what was the best and the worst part of each working day.

Getting the Most From a Job

"Money," says Dr. Spero, "should not be the primary goal. The job has to be rewarding in itself, and not just a means to an end. A job should be a way to investigate areas that your child is interested in," he says.

  • Make it a learning experience. Your teenager will be surprised at how much he or she is learning. "A bag boy in a grocery store is learning a lot about social interaction. A kid working in a hardware store will become familiar with using a cash register, making returns, making keys, so many more skills," says Dr. Spero. "I suggest that a working teen make a résumé of all the specific skills learned, in order to secure the next job," he says.
  • Stick with it. Dr. Spero recommends that your teenager keep a job for "a minimum" of six months. If your teen leaves before six months, that's a bad reflection on him or her, says Dr. Spero. "The employer has spent time and money in training," he says. (His own résumé as a youngster reflected one-year blocks of employment.) "I learned as much as I could from each mentor, then I moved on," he says. Always keep in mind that, if a job is having a negative effect on your teen's schoolwork, or if he or she has fallen in with dubious companions, parents have the right to terminate that job, says Spero. "Adolescence is the only time period of life when a salaried position will be considered a privilege," he says.
  • Monitor sleep. You also need to make sure that having a job while still in school is not cutting into your teenager's sleep time.

Want Fries With That?

The following represents the range of jobs your child might find during the summer or after school:

  • Sales clerk in the mall
  • Fast-food worker
  • Amusement park worker
  • Summer camp counselor
  • Summer resort worker
  • Typing or filing in an office

Self-Employment Opportunities Include:

  • Babysitting
  • Lawn mowing
  • Dog walking
  • Car washing
  • Creating Web pages for friends and family
  • Tutoring

A Teen Worker's Bill of Rights

Teenagers have rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and other laws. The U.S. Department of Labor offers the following guidelines for youngsters who work:

Right One: It Pays to Work -- And Work Must Pay

Your teen has the right to a fair and full day's pay for a fair and full day's work, to have hours of work properly recorded, and to be paid at least the federal minimum wage.

Right Two: Overtime Work = Overtime Pay

Your teen has the right to overtime pay (at least time and one half his or her regular rate of pay) for every hour worked beyond 40 hours a week. (Note: this right arises under the FLSA, which contains significant exemptions for some jobs that teen workers may perform.)

Right Three: Safety Is Part of the Job

Your teen has the right to a safe workplace and the right to file a complaint if the job is unsafe. He or she has the right to required safety clothing, equipment, and training.

Note: Teens under age 18 are prohibited from certain tasks:

  • Using power-driven woodworking, hoisting, slicing, or baking machines
  • Driving a motor vehicle or being an outside helper on one, except under limited circumstances
  • Manufacturing/storing explosives
  • Coal mining and other kinds of mining
  • Logging/saw-milling
  • Being exposed to radioactive substances/ionizing radiation
  • Meat packing
  • Manufacturing brick, tile, and related products
  • Wrecking, demolition, and ship-breaking operations

Limited exceptions apply for some apprentices and student learners. Additional restrictions apply to workers 15 and younger. If under 16, your child's employer is not permitted to have him or her work past 9 p.m. between Labor Day and June 1.

Right Four: No Harassment Hassles

Your teen has the right to equal employment opportunity without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or disability in an environment free of sexual and physical harassment.

Some states have worker protections which exceed federal standards. Call your state labor department for more information.

Adapted from the U.S. Dept. of Labor's "The Teen Workers' Bill of Rights."

The U.S. Department of Labor

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