As Published in The Week on June 19, 2014
Raising kids isn’t cheap. At first it’s just the basics like shelter, clothing and food, but it quickly spirals out of control into music classes, their own seat on an airplane and many, many pairs of subtly different cleats. The first time I saw the price of six weeks of summer camp, I gasped and (briefly) considered hanging out with them myself.
Then there’s a point in the tween to teen transition where kids need actual cash. Their social lives no longer happen on the playground. They meet up with their friends at and around places that sell pizza and snacks, and without a few bucks it’s technically considered loitering. They don’t need a lot, just a five or a ten (please, Mom). It was at this stage in my oldest son’s life that I started to feel like there was a hole in my pocket.
Which brings me to my big news: My kid got a job. Like for money. I’m trying to let this inevitable but totally unanticipated event sink in. At the most basic level, I’m blown away that he’s going to be spending the day doing something that I’m not paying for. It’s like he’s going to free daycare and coming home with a pocket full of minimum wage.
That’s not even the best part. While he’s at this place (for free, plus salary), he’s actually going to learn what $20 means. He already knows what it buys: it’s eight slices of pizza, a trip to the movies or the price of the basketball he just lost. Frequently it’s just one slice of pizza and a soda, the change from which gets crumbled in his pocket only to be found and kept by me on laundry day. Any which way, a twenty goes pretty fast.
What he doesn’t yet understand is where that $20 comes from. A person with a job quickly learns that a trip to the movies costs nearly three hours of work. Specifically, he’s going to have to fetch beach chairs and umbrellas in the hot sun for three hours in order to go to one air-conditioned movie with popcorn. This watershed learning experience marks the exact moment when people get a little pickier about the movies they see.
The $20 lesson is one of the many, many things that you can’t teach your kids through talking. I tell them about pre-tax dollars and social security contributions and they give me that look that I give people when they talk about grandchildren. I get the concept, but how is this ever going to apply to me? Only the experience of holding that precious first paycheck in your hand and thinking, “Wait. That’s it?” can teach you what $20 really is.
My mom did not have a hole in her pocket, so I got my first summer job at fourteen. In 1984, we weren’t bound by things like working papers or the truth. I walked into a local store and asked if they were hiring for the summer. When asked my age, I replied, “How old do I have to be to get the job?” I thought it was a fair enough question. In this way I worked through high school summers folding sweaters, then scooping ice cream, and eventually answering phones. These are all skills that I brought with me into adulthood.
It was the office jobs, filing stuff, that made me really think about the future. Cooped up under the fluorescent lights, breathing the re-circulated air, and watching the clock move backward, I realized that money isn’t easy to get. I started to understand how much of someone’s life is spent working and the importance of finding a job that captures your interest. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew it wasn’t putting other people’s paper in alphabetical order.
It’s ironic how much time and money I spend giving my kids experiences when the best ones are those that they go out and get themselves. I hope that this first job is a step on the way to understanding the world and tasting the exhilaration of self-reliance.
Oh! And the best part? They’re going to feed him lunch.