I have observed literally thousands of teenagers during my career, especially as a high school teacher and principal, in addition to raising two of my own. I can generally spot kids who either have part-time jobs or who are constantly involved in activities like sports, Ag and Fine Arts. They often stand out in overall maturity, for they know the value of hard work, teamwork, and time-management. On the other hand, I have also noted that teenagers with too much time on their hands and/or too much easy money tend to get into mischief. My guide to raising teenagers, therefore, is relatively simple: Keep ‘Em Busy and Keep ‘Em Poor! 

I am not sure if you noticed, but the number of high schoolers working in part-time jobs jumped this past summer. I first noticed at local drive-thrus as students asked me questions about the start of school. Employers recruited a lot of teenage labor during the recent labor shortage. COVID benefits did not extend to teenagers, so many of them seized the opportunity for a higher-paying summer job. Who says our kids aren’t smart and entrepreneurial!

Teenagers with after-school or summer jobs are rarer than in previous generations for a variety of reasons, and that is unfortunate because nothing prepares a youngster for the real world like a real job. They learn about things like FICA, customer service, and work ethic at a formidable time. I have hired a lot of brand-new college graduates, and those who had part-time jobs were usually miles ahead of those who did not. Showing up on time, working a full shift, and smiling when you feel like cussing are all skills learned on the job. When someone’s first job is a full-time job, they usually struggle. 

After-school and summer jobs are not the only “labor” that counts, either. Many teenagers also work for family businesses or even start their own businesses. Teenagers that are busy in activities like sports and fine arts learn the same lessons. And nothing is more real-world than having an Ag animal project; those kids (and parents) work hard!  The skills of dependability, punctuality, and teamwork matter as much in these situations as they do in a job. I do not personally think teenagers should work a lot, but a few hours a week teaches them more about the real world than just about any other activity. The value of sweating for a buck cannot be underestimated. 

In this case, I would not use myself as a good example, for I probably worked too much as a teenager. My first job was at 12, washing dishes in Woodward, Oklahoma, and I have had a job ever since. By the end of high school, I was a master short-order cook, car-washer, and a decent construction worker. By the end of college, I added truck driver, farm laborer, and horseshoer to the list. Those jobs taught me common sense and work ethic. I am not bragging, however, for I have forgotten every one of those skills, especially horseshoeing and hay hauling, so if this superintendent gig ever dries up, I am in trouble. 

The remarkable thing about after-school and summer jobs is how much they truly give people an edge later in life. I know of people who landed corporate-level positions, not based on their degree but on the insight or experience gleaned from being a camp counselor or leading Vacation Bible School. We never know when past knowledge will come in handy. I read somewhere not to despise small beginnings. Curiously enough, that author was familiar with carpenters’ tools, too.

So, for this Labor Day, hats off to all the hard-working teenagers!  You have mad respect from me and other old folks, and you instantly give us hope. This Labor Day, be sure to pat your hard-working teenagers on the back. Of course, they are probably working or practicing this weekend, but they will surely appreciate being seen and welcomed into the fellowship of hard work.  

Tom Deighan is currently the superintendent of Duncan Public Schools. He may be reached at deighantom@gmail.com  You may read past articles at www.mostlyeducational.com