The decision about whether students should work factors in both family dynamics and their financial situation. There’s also that emotional tension between parental pride and the fear of releasing your 14-year-old son into the working world so he can save money to buy some wheels.
The Colorado Youth Employment Opportunity Act establishes the framework within which minors can work. The law limits times and days for youth ages 14-15, but by 16, teens can work up to 40 hours per week and eight hours a day.
Exemptions exist for certain jobs, including newspaper carriers, actors, models and performers, home chores and work done for a parent or guardian. And if your kid is under age 14, paid activities like mowing lawns, shoveling snow, babysitting and caddying on golf courses are OK.
Educators believe that a student’s maturity should be considered by a responsible adult, whether that’s a parent, other family member, religious advisor or counselor.
“I don’t think there’s any one best methodology that fits all kids,” Mike Malnati says.
Malnati taught fifth grade in Northern Colorado for 25 years and coached high school and college tennis. Today, he evaluates schools through International Baccalaureate in the United States and internationally to develop programs that “encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners.”
“Some 16-year-olds shouldn’t be working because they’re too distracted,” he says. “Until they’re mature enough, someone should shepherd them through that decision.”
His wife, Christie Malnati, who taught middle school and high school for 40 years at the University of Northern Colorado Laboratory School, agrees, but she also emphasizes the difference between kids who work because they are helping to support their families versus those who work for pocket change to fund their hobbies.
Over the course of her career, she noticed how many middle-class kids were squeezed into the lower economic classes, and they helped put food on the table. Often, high schoolers were expected to bring money home along with homework.
“Sometimes our high schoolers in Greeley [are] the bread winners for the family,” says Laurel Kuchman, an instructional coach in Greeley-Evans School District 6 who has also taught students ages 8-11 for 27 years. “They go to school all day and work at Burger King at night; it’s 40 hours a week in fast food or grocery stores, and that’s how their family survives.”
Diane Bassett, retired professor of education at UNC, says it’s hard for teachers to recognize these students, “except when they slump down on their desks, sleeping or bleary-eyed because they were up late closing McDonalds.”
Learning the value of work
Regardless of their financial situation, teacher and therapist Thelma Bear Edgerton believes kids should work during their high school and college years. Much of the benefit centers around modeling, which is considered a powerful teaching method for instilling a strong work ethic in kids.
“Kids long for independence, and working helps them learn how to achieve that,” she says. “They feel important because they’re making strides to become an adult.”
However, Edgerton acknowledges that kids who struggle with time-management skills may not be able to handle work and school.
“If they’re staying up until all hours of the night to get schoolwork done,” she says, “that’s not a healthy life.”
Christie Malnati has followed the career paths of some of her students through the years and finds that even the ones who worked and fell asleep at school went to college and led happy lives, usually because they had good discipline.
“They knew how to put their head down to the grindstone and go,” she says.
But she noticed that it wasn’t easy for the ones who had to work.
“Parents and teachers may try to tell kids not to work for the money, [to] ‘Do it if it brings you satisfaction.’ But it’s hard to have someone believe that if the kid sitting next to them in math is wearing nicer running shoes and doesn’t have to work for them,” she says.
Christie notes another major drawback: Working kids lose out on a healthy social life, such as hanging out with friends or participating in track, yearbook or band. She says that balance needs to be considered when deciding whether your child has time to work.
A number of studies also find that working over 20 hours a week is detrimental for students, according to Bassett.
“That number organizes them and allows them to parcel out all the pieces of life—work, homework, time with friends—and be fulfilled. Anything over 20 hours, even for college undergraduates, and they’ll struggle,” she says.
Christie says that kids having time to be kids has non-monetary value, too: “Kids [being] involved in extracurricular activities, like choir or sports, is good because they have to be responsible to their coach and teammates. They’re getting a mentor who doesn’t care about money.”
Along with gaining independence, building confidence and teaching self-discipline, working gives kids a crucial understanding of finances and how to establish credit. There’s also a correlation between earning money and the joy of achievement.
“Working to earn extra money to support a habit or hobby, like clothes, sports, a car or saving for college, that becomes the carrot,” Mike Malnati says. “That’s a real-life experience that you don’t learn in school. It’s what parents hope for their kiddos: the lesson that if you want it, you earn it.”
Bassett recalls some of her son’s jobs that required menial labor. She says it inspired him.
“Waiting tables, bussing, doing landscape work, even janitorial work—so many of my son’s choices came from the jobs he had as a youngster,” Bassett says.
What motivates today’s kids to work?
Kuchman and her husband assign their 12-year-old daughter chores—cleaning her room, putting laundry away and helping in the yard are on the list. If she completes her weekly chores, she earns $15, which Kuchman tracks on the Greenlight app, a debit card that assigns monetary value to work done at home. While it works for some families, she acknowledges that there are limitations.
“She’s not motivated by money, so it’s not a great tool,” Kuchman says. “She sees joy in work, that it feels good to accomplish things. My husband and I love working, and she’s kind of wired that way.”
Her daughter’s largest motivator is dance; it’s a social opportunity and time to interact with other kids. More tech time, like minutes on an iPad, is also important.
“This generation is [often] motivated by praise and positive reinforcement from an adult they care about—that means way more than money,” Kuchman says.
Mike Malnati also sees a broader purpose in beginning work at a young age.
“It’s about learning that no one owes you anything. The greatest benefit comes from the knowledge that you can stand on your own two feet and take care of yourself, if you have the opportunity,” he says.