Exactly two years ago, I wrote a post about how my kids would be doing nothing all summer long. Our laissez-faire experiment went so well in 2012, that I repeated the lack of structured activity in 2013. I’m a big believer in the notion that boredom is good for children. And if they dare whine about it, I tell them to clean the house.
However, 2014 is shaping up to be a horse of a different color. While my 7-year-old daughter continues to be footloose and fancy-free (though we are systematically working our way thorough the “Disney Princess Cookbook”), my almost 11-year-old son won a grant earlier in the year that allowed him to attend two weeks of computer camp and then a coding conference in England. I’ve already made it clear to him that this is a one-shot deal and he should enjoy every single moment of it.
But then, there is the issue of my oldest son. He just turned 15, finishing his freshman year of high school. Previously, my husband left the dispensation of our kids’ summer schedule to me. This year, he informed our older son that he expected him to get a job.
My husband grew up working every summer through high school and college. He was a camp counselor, he was a stock-boy, he filed government documents, he did inventory at Macy’s. To him, teenagers get jobs in the summer. That’s just how it is.
I spent my summers either going to summer school so I could sign up for more advanced courses in the fall, taking care of my younger brother by driving him to all his activities, watching soap operas, and reading books (I’m sure the fact that I now work in soap operas and write books is a complete coincidence). To be honest, the idea of my son getting a job now that he’s 15 never even crossed my mind.
My husband was adamant. No son of his was going to lie around lazy and shiftless for three months, sleeping under our roof, and eating our food, without contributing anything. (When my husband lived at home after college, he paid his parents rent. When I lived at home all through college and for a year afterward, I didn’t. Obviously, our world views on what’s appropriate in that regard are miles apart.) My husband is currently a teacher, but he spent a portion of his career doing hiring for tech companies. There, he met people who didn’t know how to show up on time, meet deadlines, dress for a professional environment, shake hands and look others in the eye, or–most importantly–take responsibility for the actions instead of always looking for someone else to blame. To him, a summer job is mandatory for teaching all those skills before our son steps out into the real world workforce.
My husband did concede that it’s much more difficult for a teen to find a summer job now than it was for him in the late 1980s. A post last week on Jezebel reported that the number of 16-19-year-olds working during the summer is down 40% since that time period. Not only is the economy in worse shape, but there are also so many more regulations and restrictions in place now, that it’s hardly worth a company’s time to hire an inexperienced kid (though how that kid is then supposed to get experience for future employment, I’m not exactly sure) as either a temp worker or even an intern.
He told our son to look for employment anyway.
Our son whined and complained. (Did I mention he was a teenager?)
My objection was more philosophical. As I’ve written before, I really do believe that stretches of boredom force kids to be creative and self-sufficient in a way that a summer packed full of structured activities does not. It requires them to think about what they really want to do and of how to do it without an eager adult perennially standing there to lend a helping hand.
Because I write about education, I read a ton of cognitive science research (well, maybe not as much as Mayim did for her PhD in Neuroscience, but still, I read a lot of it). And there have been some very interesting new insights into the teenage brain lately.
The teenage brain, it seems, actually needs challenge and responsibility so that they can learn to make proper decisions and control their basic fight-or-flight reflex that was so handy back in the days when it was either hunt or be hunted. In fact, several scientists have floated the theory that the 21st Century spike in teen depression, suicide and substance abuse is because well-meaning parents have protected their children so much, have sheltered them from life’s hardships and absolved them from the consequences of their actions to such a degree, that their still-forming brain is desperately looking for that essential stimulation and, more often than not, coming up empty. A teen brain craves a certain level of stress, accountability, and, my personal favorite, lots and lots of failure. If their teen brains don’t get the developmentally appropriate kind of stimulation, they go and create the less productive kind. (Caveat: This is a very simplistic summary. Obviously, many more factors go into mental health issues. But it is, nevertheless, a crucial one.)
So while my two younger kids still have a couple of activity-free summers ahead of them, I agreed with my husband that it would be proper for our oldest son to get a job. And my husband agreed that it doesn’t need to be a for-pay, toil in the salt-mines/factory welder kind of thing. (I know I said earlier that the secret to a long-lasting marriage is to never compromise; but this was more a case of our coming around to the other person’s point of view. Or so I rationalize to myself.)
This summer, our oldest son will be spending five weeks (grudgingly) participating in a free program that teaches minority kids how to start their own business. He will be working 9 to 5, five days a week (promptness!). He will be conceiving, developing, building, and marketing a product (creative!) in a group setting (communal!). He’ll be meeting new people (social!), and presenting his ideas in oral, written, and multimedia form (stress!) to professional investors (plenty of opportunity for failure!).
He will also be taking his younger brother to camp in the morning and picking him up in the evening (responsibility! Plus, I’m paying him), in addition to his regular chores of doing the dishes and taking out the garbage (which I don’t pay him for).
And then, he will spend the last four weeks of summer… doing nothing. Along with the rest of us.