Forget 9 to 5. But should you let your teen work 5 to 9? "There are no hard and fast rules," says DeDe Jones, a certified financial planner and certified public accountant in Lakewood, Colo., and the mother of 17-year-old twins. In honor of Labor Day, here's a top 10 guide to what to think and talk about before your child starts collecting paychecks:
1. Put academics first. "Kids are supposed to do their primary work, which is show up at school and get good grades," says Dr. Joseph Hagan, former chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on psychosocial aspects of child and family health and co-editor of the AAP's Bright Futures: Guidelines for Health Supervision of Infants, Children, and Adolescents. "That's their job." You don't want your child falling asleep in the classroom — or behind the wheel of a car.
2. Limit hours. You don't want your child to be truly working for a living. Neither does the government: check federal and state child labor laws for restrictions. Help your kids or grandkids ease into work. When they're younger, they can shovel sidewalks, weed, walk dogs, baby sit, pet sit, and pick up mail for out-of-town neighbors. A child can learn from a position that requires very little time. "The idea of a job is to get them some experience and get them used to dealing with a boss and not a parent," says Mark LaSpisa, president of Vermillion Financial Advisors. A university president told him that students who work more than 15 to 20 hours a week fall behind and often end up attending college for an extra year or two.
3. Avoid dangerous jobs. You don't want your kids working in a coal mine — or its equivalent. The National Consumers League advises teens to beware of risky jobs in construction, landscaping, door-to-door sales, crop harvesting, forklift and tractor operating. (A 14-year-old working for a lawn-care company got pulled into a wood chipper.) To better protect children from hazards, the U.S. Department of Labor just revised its regulations. Also see the Occupational Safety & Health Administration pages for young workers.
4. Vet employers. Do they offer flexible, teen-friendly schedules? You want your child to be able to take off work to study for finals or to perform in the school orchestra concert. "Ask around," says Jones. "And teach the kids how to research an employer."
5. Consider alternatives to traditional teen jobs. In this economy, positions in retail stores or fast-food restaurants may be tough to find. This month the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the unemployment rate for teens was 26.1 percent — far higher than the 9.7 percent rate for adult men and the 7.9 percent rate for adult women. Visit snagajob.com, which offers a locator to "find teen jobs near you." Think creatively, advises Jones, whose 17-year-old son is digitizing photo albums for people. That's especially important if your teen goes to college in a small town with few opportunities. Remind him to look for on-campus jobs first. If your child can't find a job (or even if he can), consider volunteer work.
6. Think about what your teen can handle. Kids already feel under pressure. High school students took nearly 2.9 million Advanced Placement exams last year — vs. just 1.1 million a decade earlier. One reason for all these tests: they're vying to get into a increasingly competitive colleges. (This year Stanford University, for example, admitted only 7.2 percent of 32,000 applicants.) "If you've got a kid who wants to do two sports, marching band, and the school play, she doesn't have time to work," says Jones.
7. Take advantage of all the teachable moments. Your child can learn about saving, hard work, and taxes. Make sure he knows what the government will deduct before he gets his paycheck. And explain a few of the ways it spends the money — on the military, on highways, and on medical research. Teens whose parents claim them as a deduction can earn $5,700 without owing taxes; then they pay 10 percent, explains Jones. You might even introduce your child to online tools such as TurboTax.
8. Discuss paycheck plans. Do you expect your child to save a portion of his earnings for college? "A permutation is not to say, 'I want you to put 10 percent away for tuition or books,' but 'I want you to put 10 percent away because you're going to want spending money in college,'" says Hagan. Do you want to attach any strings? "I don't think children should have huge amounts of unsupervised cash that they can divert to inappropriate activities," says Hagan. "You don't want to be funding a marijuana habit." On the other hand, he says, "I don't think parents should take the money and manage it." Meanwhile, if you or your spouse recently got a pink slip, perhaps you would like your child to contribute some of his earnings to the family. "A teenager may get enormous, genuine value from pulling his or her own weight in the family," says Dr. Elizabeth Berger, a child psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids with Character. "Asking young people to make sacrifices can sometimes be a hidden blessing because of the genuine pride and sense of purpose involved."
9. Think about your values. Perhaps you consider a job a good way to teach your child about hard work. Maybe you think a not-so-fun position mopping floors at a fast-food restaurant will motivate your teen to study harder and get into a good college. (Dolly Parton sang about pouring a "cup of ambition.") Or do you think work will interfere with your child's high school experiences? Jones's husband thought his teen job caused him to miss out on fun activities. His take: "I ended up supporting my car," she says.
10. Set guidelines. Remember the old Johnny Paycheck song, "Take This Job and Shove It?" Do you want to forbid your child from immediately quitting — or from calling in sick to go out with friends? Do you want to make a promise to attend college a prerequisite to employment? "Now and then a somewhat immature youngster may wish to drop out of school or make an unwise job arrangement, lured by the hope of earning untold riches instead of studying for that geometry exam," says Berger. "Parents may have to step in to assure that common sense prevails."
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