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Teen Jobs Build Character Or Divert From School?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, we'll continue our celebration of National Poetry Month with our series Muses and Metaphor. That's just ahead.

But first, they say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Today, we want to continue the conversation we've been having about teen unemployment. As high school students look ahead to summer, a lot of teenagers may have trouble finding jobs. As we just talked about a few minutes ago, nationally, the teen jobless rate has been above 20 percent for the past three summers. That's according to the Employment Policies Institute. And we just heard from researcher Michael Saltsman, who cites data suggesting that teens who don't have paid jobs are missing out on some valuable life lessons.

But other people feel that 14, 15, 16 is just too early to start working, and that the kinds of jobs most teens can actually get keeps them from doing things that are more important for their later lives, like focusing on school.

We asked our NPR listeners to weigh in on Facebook and here's what Lou Rosas(ph) of Tucson, Arizona had to say.

LOU ROSAS: My job as a teen prepared me for nothing. It has not helped me in any way as an adult. Perhaps it is because of my own negative experience, but when my daughter gets to be teen working age, I'm going to encourage her to either not work or to find work that she will enjoy, or take the time she has as a teen and enjoy every moment of it.

MARTIN: You can imagine there are lots of opinions about this. So we figured, who better to ask than our panel of moms? Dani Tucker is the mom of an 18-year-old-son and a 14-year-old daughter, one of our regular contributors. She's here in Washington, D.C. with us, along with Jolene Ivey. She's a Maryland state lawmaker, cofounder of a parenting support group and the mom of five boys, age 12 to 22. Also with us, Aracely Panameno. She's the director of Latino Affairs at the Center for Responsible Lending. She's got a daughter in her 20s.

They're all here in Washington, D.C. Welcome.


MARTIN: Thanks so much for coming back.

JOLENE IVEY: Thank you, Michel.

DANI TUCKER: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Dani, let's start with you, because you have a very strong feeling about this. I'm shocked by this. And you worked since you were - what - 11? And you feel strongly that your kids should work, and they've worked since they were 11. Why do you feel so strongly about this?

TUCKER: I think it was, A, because my family was strong about it. So it's in our genes. My mom worked, too, at young ages, because it taught us responsibility. It taught us to do our share in the home. It taught us that you're never too young to serve, you know, whether you're getting paid. So a lot of our stuff started off as volunteer, and then became paid.

I remember De-De(ph) got his first job. The ANC Commission in our neighborhood paid him $20 to pass out fliers. And to watch him take such responsibility about his job and the way he felt about it - so it's very important in our communities, especially. You know, a lot of people know about the D.C. Summer Jobs Program. My kids have been D.C. Summer Job participants from when they were eligible. And, personally, for me, unlike the guy who would tell his young people, you know, don't do it, I think, bad or good experience, it's necessary. It's necessary to teach them responsibility and just to teach them value of working.

MARTIN: I want to mention that we have another mom who reached out to us on Facebook. The majority of parents who wrote in agree with your position. One mom, Melanie Troop(ph), is from Napa, California. She wrote in. She's a married mom, works, four kids, husband works in construction. She does, too. So, you know, wages have really been flat the last couple of years, even though she's, you know, very happy to still be employed.

She says, at this stage in our lives, we can't give her - she's talking about the oldest, the 17-year-old - all the trendy items other people can afford to give their children. That's why I feel it's important for her to find a job to learn to provide for herself. Isn't that what we need to do as parents? Teach our kids to survive.

Other points of view on this, Jolene?

IVEY: Well, I agree with those things, but I think that you can certainly give your kids an opportunity to learn about themselves, to learn what they want to do, what they love to do, what they hate to do. These things are important. One of my kids thought he really wanted to be a lifeguard because he was such a strong swimmer. And he really was great at going to the classes and he passed and he got a job, and he hated it. He hated being a lifeguard. He thought it was the worst thing ever to have to sit in that chair and look at the water and, you know, you have to be so careful. You can't let someone drown. But, on the other hand, probably nobody's going to.

MARTIN: It's so boring.

IVEY: So he just really, really didn't like it, but it taught him something.

MARTIN: But is the paid aspect of it important, the fact that you're getting paid to do something? Or not?

IVEY: Getting paid is important. I mean, practically speaking, it's good to be paid and learn the value of money and how to handle it. If you can afford to let your child not have to make money, it is also valuable for them to be able to get other life experiences that might not come with a paycheck.

MARTIN: So you're not adamant about it?

IVEY: No. I'm really not. I mean, I think that, basically, I would rather - if my kids have an opportunity to have rich, wonderful experiences that teach them all kinds of things about the world, even if they don't come with a paycheck. But, you know, I struggle with that myself. I worked from when I was 12, also, and I thought it was great. I loved my job. I watched kids. I got paid. I saved money. I knew how to figure out how much a bike cost and how I was going to pay for it. And I think those are valuable things. I'm not sure my kids are getting that same level of training.

MARTIN: Because they don't have to work, in part. Isn't it part the issue that they don't have to work?

IVEY: Yeah. We've gone through periods where maybe they should. Like one of my kids, when he was a volunteer for the Obama campaign when he was in high school, and it was great for him and he was not getting paid. But the next year, he really needed to work because he was in college and we needed him to have some spending money so it was tough.

MARTIN: Aracely, what about you?

PANAMENO: So, I agree with what everyone has said. And in my experience, I grew up in a family where the family was a business owner and there was a sense of A role that I needed to fulfill and contribute to the success of the family and the business and it wasn't about whether or not I was getting paid. That was my experience. However, my daughter, when she was growing up, she wasn't required to work but she was encouraged to work. So there was no household budgetary needs that require her contributing to it. However, I did value that she needed to prioritize and do time management and not be distracted. So, you know, provided that she wasn't distracted or away from her academics, she was encouraged to do well in school, she was encouraged to engage herself in extracurricular activities and to do volunteer work. So even the work that she did when she was volunteering at the library or the when she was volunteering at nonprofit organizations, which was office work, you know, it was still, it gave her a sense of value and she was allowed to experience various other things out in the world.

MARTIN: We're talking about whether teens should work with three of our regular contributors to our parenting panel. Aracely Panameno is with us. That's who was speaking just now. Also with us, Dani Tucker and Jolene Ivey.

But, you know, Dani, what about the other idea, here, that we were talking about in the earlier show, that some kids get intoxicated with these low-wage jobs and don't understand that this is not, you know, supposed to be permanent. In fact, in your experience, you have a son who is going into the military soon. Don't start crying. Keep it together.


MARTIN: And you were telling us that of the group of young people who were recruited along with him, who were scheduled to go in at the same time he was, bucking the trend of the high teen unemployment rate in this particular area, it's hovering around 50 percent, a number of them were able to get jobs, kind of low-wage fast-food jobs, and now they aren't going forward with their service commitment because they think that this is so great.

TUCKER: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: So what about that idea that, you know, some of these kids, they get intoxicated with these paychecks and they're living at home so they think it's a lot of money and then that keeps them from really doing what they should be doing, which is investing in education and further training, military service.

TUCKER: That's my responsibility. And I say to the parent that's your responsibility to keep pushing them to go higher and not to settle. DeVaughn did his time at Harris Tetters and came home one day and said, mom, I don't like it. You're right. But he also admitted it's because you were always lighting a fire. When you're always working towards something, I mean, they watched mom do it. Just because I'm in my 40s doesn't mean I'm not still working towards something. Always push to take them higher. One-third of his enlistment class, backed out when it was time to leave because they were working at Five Guys or wherever they were working, and they were making a little money. And again, at home parents weren't saying and I'm like you owe me rent. You know, how are you going to pay it? And they weren't getting that, so they got comfortable. They got comfortable. They could put their little money in their pocket and do whatever they wanted to do. I never let him get comfortable.

MARTIN: Aracely?

PANAMENO: So my daughter took a year - she's in college right now - she took a year off from college and went off and experienced California for a little bit, and was looking for work. She could not even get herself a job at McDonalds or doing anything for a period of six to eight months.

MARTIN: And why was that? And because she had no prior work experience that they thought was important, or just because the market was so tight?

PANAMENO: The market was just so tight. The unemployment level for black and Latino young people in the L.A. area is extremely high, and so she couldn't have any opportunity. She was competing, in fact, with people that had college degrees for McDonald's jobs. So she ended up coming home. But she had sense that she needed to something better for herself and so she ended up going back to school. She now has an hourly wage, part-time job that she does while she's in college. She still knows that she cannot make ends meet and she has gotten used to, sort of, like the lifestyle that mom provided. And I have made sure she that understood that in order to have that kind of lifestyle, she needed to better herself and, you know, strive for something better in terms of education and employability.

MARTIN: Jolene, I wanted to ask this, because they are just, let's just be real about this. There are people for whom, you know, teenagers working is really not optional. If the teenagers can afford, can find a job, they need to work because otherwise, you know, clothes, back-to-school clothes aren't going to get bought. Maybe kids are going to go back to college or even be able to go if a teenager is not contributing. But for parents for whom that's not the reality, what is the trigger, what is the thing that encourages you to say you need to go get a job? What you think that the, sort of, the dividing line should be as opposed to you should go to summer school? And I have to tell you that, you know, I have friends who, to this day, resent that their parents required them to work in the summer as opposed to letting them fulfill or dig into a deep academic interest or something like that; or go to summer school or really pursued music or something like that - I mean to this day, think that that's, you know, that that's messed up. And I'm just wondering, what's the line for you?

IVEY: Every child, every family is different. You really have to look at your own situation and figure it out. I'm friends with a family right now who is struggling because the kid is 19 years old. He can't seem to make himself go to college. He can't seem to make himself go get a job. He wants to be creative. I mean at some point I'd be like, look boy, let me tell you how it's going to be.


IVEY: And it's not going to be hanging around trying to figure out how you're going to entertain yourself, that doesn't work for me. So as long as you're doing something productive it doesn't have to be paid, if you can afford for your child not to get paid.

MARTIN: OK. But I mean but let me push back on this since I don't know the family.

IVEY: But it's got to be something.

MARTIN: But I don't know the family, I don't know if they can afford for him to not work.

IVEY: He can't afford to have that to be in his background, to be in his self. He's got to be a person who pushes himself. And I don't care, for me, is it that he gets a job someplace doing something, is it that he goes to college, what does he do? He's got to do something.

MARTIN: It's the completion argument. It's the idea that you can be consistent and complete a task and the accountable. Is that the main thing that you're concerned about?

IVEY: I would say that that's a strong part of it and I certainly wouldn't let my kids languish around like that. I know it's very frustrating for the mother now. I have another friend though, who called me recently, very upset. She wants me to help her find her kid an internship because he's graduating from college and he doesn't have real work experience. He has work experience working at the fast-food places but that's not what's going to get him to the next level. And you have to help your kids see what is the experience - maybe it's to make a paycheck, maybe it's not. But whatever it is when you get out of school you've got to get a job and they want to see something on your resume other than flipping burgers.

MARTIN: Aracely, that's a sore point, isn't it? Because I know that a lot of internships are unpaid. And I know that for a lot of...

PANAMENO: Most definitely. Families...

MARTIN: A lot of internships are unpaid. And I, you know, the experience that many of us has had is that a lot of interns family members say you can't afford to work for free. What is this freeness? What is this free mess? You better go get you a job at, you know, at the Gap or wherever, you know, and get some money even if that's not what you're mainly interested in. What do you think about that, Aracely?

PANAMENO: So there are a couple of things going on. I mean I think that working families, middle-class families, the working poor, they're facing really hard times right now. They're trying to make mortgage payments and keep the roof over their head and food on the table and so forth and at the same time we're trying to raise our children so that they become productive adults. And so no, there is no way that you that you can have a working age adults sitting at home trying to be creative.

My daughter is the creative type, you know, and she needs the discipline of a schedule, of being responsible and accountable. The longer they sit around idle, the more time there is to get in trouble. So teenagers get, for example, they get pregnant between the ages - between the hours of three PM in the afternoon and seven PM. You know, teenage boys will get into trouble also with the law and gang activity between those hours as well because that's the idle time. And so if they're not required to be accountable to anyone, including work, then that hurts them. It also hurts them in their ability to actually adhere to a schedule later on in life if they actually graduate from school.

MARTIN: I just want to say one thing about the whole creative piece you. We're not dogging creative people. Let me just say...


MARTIN: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nobel Prize winner for literature, gets up every day and writes every single day of his life. And I think also Walter Mosley, the wonderful African-American writer has told me and told, I think, a lot of other people that he gets up every single day and writes. So I mean being creative and being disciplined aren't against each other.


IVEY: Absolutely. No doubt about it.


MARTIN: Dani, I'm going to give you the final you were here.

TUCKER: Always my final word to the parent of you, think about your kids and where you want them to go if you're not here and that will help you come to some decisions. Trust me. When I take myself out of the equation and say you know what, what will happen to them if I wasn't here? And that's what you have - and then make your decision should they work. Then make your decision, you know, should they do this and do that, because ultimately you have got to prepare than to live on this earth without you and without your support and without your money. So think of it that way.

MARTIN: That's an interesting takeaway, sobering thought, sobering thought. Well, thank you, as always right, Dani.


MARTIN: It's hard but it's a fair, right, Dani?

TUCKER: It's me.

MARTIN: Dani Tucker, Jolene Ivey, Aracely Panameno are three of our regular contributors to our parenting conversations. They were all here with us in our Washington, D.C. Studios.

Moms, ladies, thank you so much.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

TUCKER: Thank you kindly.

PANAMENO: Thank you guys and Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.