May 07, 2008

Should Kids Work?


author_karenBy Karen Sternheimer

Recently, the Long Beach Press-Telegram, a regional southern California newspaper, was bought out and will basically merge with a local competitor, suffering many staff cuts in the process. This prompted letters to the editor of the Los Angeles Times (another struggling southern California paper, but that’s another story) from clip_image002readers mourning the demise of smaller papers like the Press-Telegram. One letter told of boyhood years delivering newspapers, and how smaller papers like this one gave kids “a first taste of what it meant to earn money that didn’t come from their parents” and a chance to run “their own micro-business.” These opportunities go away along with smaller newspapers.

This letter struck a chord with me; but it wasn’t a nostalgic one. I (briefly) had a paper route myself when I was about twelve for a regional paper called the Cleveland Sun-Press. Being an enterprising kid—I sold stationary, held my own garage sales, and sold homemade candy at school—a paper route seemed like a great idea to make some more money.

clip_image004In order to have a paper route, I had to give the Sun-Press a deposit (about $30, if memory serves) to pay for papers that I would deliver. Then I would get to keep whatever I collected when I went door to door asking to be paid at the end of the month. This seemed like a great plan…until I actually started. 

The paper came out once a week, and had to be delivered early in the morning before school. I got up well before dawn, at around 4:00 on the first day. My father didn’t like the idea of his twelve-year-old wandering the streets in the middle of the night, so he got up to come with me. Although he drove me, I had to trudge up unplowed, icy driveways in the middle of winter, and barely finished to make it to school on time. My dad thought we would need to get up even earlier the next week, so we were up well before three and did it again.

When it came time to collect my hard-earned pay I was in for a big surprise. Turns out most of the people on the streets I was told to deliver to never subscribed to the paper in the first place. I remember a lady slamming the door in my face, telling me she wasn’t going to pay for the paper and not to bother her again. I didn’t come close to collecting the money I had invested.

I came to the realization many other entrepreneurs do: I had to shut down my business since I was losing money (and sleep) in the process. After some shame I told my parents. I felt like a quitter, but they supported my decision, and were probably glad not to wake up in the middle of the night any more.

Having a few decades of distance from this “micro-business,” I think this arrangement was exploitive rather than a business opportunity. Aside from the questionable practice of making a child pay to work for them, and providing an invalid subscription list, this task could have put me in significant danger had I not had a parent willing and able to help me do my job (unpaid…thanks again, Dad).

In hindsight, it is easy to see “working children” as a vestige of a less-informed past. Fortunately, my family was not dependent on my wages so they didn’t insist that I keep the paper route. 

Sociologist Viviana Zelizer, author of Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children found in her historical study that perceptions of working children vary by the economic needs of society. When a large number of children are needed in the labor force, work is seen as character-building, and their productivity is seen as moral, rather than exploitive. She contends that when children were no longer needed en masse in the labor force, this construction shifted to view children as emotionally priceless but economically useless. At this same time, child stars on the stage and screen began to emerge, as their “child-like” qualities ironically became valuable commodities.

In many developing countries today, it is commonplace for children to work to help their families survive. It’s very likely that the clothes that you are wearing now were made by a girl not too much older than I was when I had my paper route. 

Let’s not think that young children only work for wages in “other places.” Have you seen I Know My Kid's a Star on VH1? The latest of a genre of stage parents trying to get their kids into “the business,” this show follows the latest conventions of so-called reality television, where the contestants all live together in a 

house and are eliminated week by week. The real characters on this and the other shows like it are the parents (mostly moms) who seem way over-invested in getting their kids work in Hollywood. 

It’s easy to caricature these parents as monsters, but we are all involved in children’s labor in some ways. We watch them on television, in movies, buy their CDs and ask them who they think should be the next president. Yes, this is different from working in a factory or walking the streets before dawn to deliver papers, but we might ask whether these kids are as free from exploitation as we might think. If we watch them, criticize them when they stumble into adulthood, or buy the products they work 14 hours a day to produce, we are in some ways benefiting from working children.

And what about kids—do they benefit from work? And if so, what kind? Remember, I wanted my paper route, and many children who pursue careers want them clip_image006too. Even children who helped support their families a century ago liked the autonomy of having jobs, says historian David Nasaw in his book Children of the City.

Parents also often think children should have chores to help around the house, babysit, or earn their allowance. Teenagers, of course, often work part-time because they or their parents want them to earn spending money, learn valuable skills like responsibility, or have work experience to include on their college applications. Beyond “good” parenting, how do these ideas about working children reflect our economic realities at the start of the twenty-first century? How do they create the meaning of childhood itself?


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children need to know that they are necessary to the purpose of a family. without purpose, they have no reason to value family above other social units that give them a sense of meaning and belonging.

Studies often find a curvilinear relationship between the amount of paid labor and the actions of high school students. Teenages who never work and those who work full-time have more problems at school and at home. Mortimer et al (1996) summarizes their research:

This article examines the effects of work intensity on adolescent mental health, academic achievement, and behavioral adjustment. Questionnaire data were collected yearly from an initial panel of 1,000 randomly selected ninth graders (14-15 years old). Consistent with other studies, students who worked at higher intensity engaged in more alcohol use. The methodological strengths of this research (a representative panel studied prospectively over a 4-year period with minimal attrition and an analysis incorporating key control and lagged variables) provide strong evidence that adolescent work fosters alcohol use. The contention that work of high intensity has deleterious effects on mental health, academic achievement, and 2 other indicators of behavioral adjustment did not withstand our stringent tests. However, high school seniors who worked at moderate intensity (1-20 hours per week) had higher grades than both nonworkers and students who worked more hours per week.

Cite: Mortimer, Jeylan T.; Finch, Michael D.; Ryu, Seongryeol; Shanahan, Michael J. 1996. "The effects of work intensity on adolescent mental health, achievement, and behavioral adjustment." Child Development, 67(3) 1243-1261

i found this article rather interesting i believe certain kids should work to learn to be responible for their own wants, and actions also they can learn good working habits, but when it interfers with their schooling then i believe it becomes a problem, also the effect it has on child labor such as laor done in other countries for our minor wants at the expense of slavery of someone else, when that is the case then i feel children should not work.

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