Summer Employment for Kids

At what age do you recommend that a child start a summer job?

The child’s age is less important than his or her level of maturity and the parents’ reasons for encouraging summer employment. What do you want your son or daughter to learn from this experience? What are the values and principles you’re trying to instill in his or her mind? These are the kinds of questions you should be asking as you think about introducing your kids to the realities of the working world.

It should be obvious that different families will respond to these questions in different ways. Teenagers may need to work in order to help defray education-related expenses or meet personal financial needs – car-insurance, gas money, or cell phone bills. In the case of younger children, where the monetary factor is less pressing, moms and dads may have a wide variety of motives for wanting their kids to take on a greater share of the workload. That’s not to mention that work-related ideals and ethics vary from generation to generation and from one socio-economic class to another.

The story of J. C. Penney, founder of the department store chain that bears his name, comes to mind as an illustration of this last thought. When Penney was eight years old, his father took him aside and advised him that, as of that moment, he was on his own financially. He now had to provide enough income to purchase all his clothes and buy any necessities of life, with the exception of food and shelter. The boy asked his father if he could begin at least with a new pair of shoes. His dad said no, that he was now on his own, and he would have to make do.

That was in the early 1880s. The elder Penney’s response may sound harsh to most of us today, and there probably aren’t many modern parents who would feel inclined to follow his example. In our society, it’s generally not as important for a child to work as it was when our culture was agriculturally based and labor was expected as a way of life from the moment a child was able to contribute to the needs of the family. But the anecdote is timeless in the sense that it highlights some of the most fundamental reasons a parent can have for assigning age-appropriate jobs to children as early in life as possible – namely, the need to teach discipline, responsibility and the rewards of hard work.

Since kids aren’t developmentally ready to grasp these concepts until the mid- to late-elementary grades, we’d suggest waiting until they’re between ages eight and ten before giving them a summer job of some kind at home – vacuuming and dusting, for instance, or watering and weeding the garden. By the time children are 16 years old they can find employment in other places. As a matter of fact, we’d recommend that they be required by their parents to work for someone else as soon as they are able. The benefits in terms of learning how to live in a responsible manner – to be on time, to work carefully and efficiently, to take instruction from other authorities, and so on – are simply incalculable. It’s not a question of whether the parents can afford to support the child. It’s a matter of equipping the child to make his or her own way in the world.

Is there any good reason not to require a teen to hold a job during the summertime? This, too, is something that parents will have to decide for themselves. There may be circumstances under which other activities would take priority – for example, a planned mission trip, summer school, participation in sports, or an extended family vacation. In other words, we wouldn’t necessarily recommend that children work at all costs. But on the whole we take the view that the benefits of holding a summer job far outweigh any potential negatives. And it’s hard to imagine what those negatives might be.

If you need help applying these concepts to the day-to-day realities of your child’s situation, don’t hesitate to give our staff a call. Focus on the Family’s counselors would be happy to listen to your concerns and assist you with some practical suggestions.


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