Back in 2012, I scandalized the Internet by revealing that “This Summer, My Kids Are Doing… Nothing.”
In New York City, where children are to be “enriched” (not unlike uranium), and parents camp out overnight for a chance to register at a science camp held at a private school which only accepts gifted preschoolers—and which many parents believe is their ticket to gifted Kindergarten and thus, the Ivy League—my confession of summer sloth was akin to child abuse.
My kids don’t do camp, sleepaway or day, because they don’t particularly enjoy the outdoors, and I won’t pay for something they don’t even like. My kids don’t do classes because escorting three children to three different locations via the sweltering subway is not my idea of a good time.
“But what do you do when they complain they’re bored?” perplexed friends wondered.
“I tell them to clean the house.”
They get unbored real fast. Or, at least, they stop complaining to me about it.
In 2012, my kids were 13, almost-9, and 5.
This summer, they’re 18, almost-14, and 10. This summer, they’re working.
I didn’t grow up having a summer job in high-school. I spent my summers taking care of my younger brother, and writing (very bad) novels. My husband, on the other hand, worked every summer after 9th grade, and expected that our kids would too.
Granted, it’s a lot more difficult these days for teenagers to find summer employment (why pay a kid to learn on the job the same you could pay an experienced adult?). But my husband refused to accept that as an excuse.
Our oldest son was not enthused by the prospect. Especially when the first jobs he found were camp counselor positions. Not only were the organizations skirting minimum wage laws through a variety of clever classifications, but, as noted above, he hates the outdoors. Eventually, he found a (paid) museum internship. They were still breaking the law – but at least there was air-conditioning.
My middle child is only starting 8th grade in September. He doesn’t fall under my husband’s mandate. But ever since he found out he can earn an adult’s wages for his computer programming skills, my 13 year old has been squeezing in paid gigs even during the school year. When offered a full-time position over the summer, he leapt at it.
Not to be outdone, my daughter is volunteering at her school library, helping to label and shelve new books.
The younger two are having a blast. The older is complaining about his Summer of Hell commute. But even he admits he’s learning interesting stuff.
“But don’t they deserve a break?” Well-meaning friends chime in. “They work so hard during the school year!”
Yes, they do. But it’s a different kind of work. At school, the teachers are there to serve and accommodate the kids. At work, the kids are there to serve and accommodate others. At school, all effort is geared towards their own success. At work, they’re doing it for somebody else. As a result, the level of responsibility is higher, as are the expectations.
With even colleges now infantilizing legal adults, finding – and keeping – a job teaches my kids skills schools no longer do.
“But isn’t it too much pressure?” It’s those friends again.
A 13 year old shouldn’t be worried about deadlines, he shouldn’t be attending meetings, or in charge of supervising others.
“Let kids be kids!” They cry.
Except here’s the ironic part: Neurological and psychological research has actually shown that the teen-age brain craves challenge and responsibility. It’s when they don’t get it that they try to fulfill their needs with risk-taking behavior like drugs.
Experts stress the value of developing self-esteem, but they mean the kind that comes from actually doing and achieving something of value, not the kind that comes with participation trophies.
Computer programming has been particularly excellent for my younger son, because when you make a mistake, you can’t claim it’s because the machine doesn’t like you, or the other guy cheated, or “it’s just not fair.” You can’t say you tried your best, you should get the credit anyway. It’s because you made a mistake. A mistake it’s up to you fix.
Not all jobs are that cut and dried in the lessons they teach, but they all have an element of accountability that school and other extracurricular activities facilitated by adults whose goal it is to put you on the path to succeed – no matter what – lack.
That’s why all my kids are working this summer. Those halcyon days of doing nothing are over.