Get to work: How jobs can provide teens with experiences more valuable than a paycheque

Jobs can provide teenagers with a lot more than cash to spend — they can be a crash course in negotiating relationships, power dynamics, expectations and responsibility, writes Amy Bell.

On-the-job lessons can help teens become responsible adults, writes Amy Bell

Working after school or during the summer break can teach teens a lot about responsibility, team work and budgeting, parenting columnist Amy Bell writes. (The Canadian Press)

While I usually frown over child labour, I do make an exception when it comes to teenagers becoming gainfully employed. My soon-to-be 16-year-old has just entered the workforce and while I am hoping it will teach her responsibility and time management, and boost her confidence, I'm also hoping it will give my wallet some much-needed relief.

In B.C., there are limits to the jobs that kids under 16 can get, but jobs can provide a lot more than cash to spend. They can be a crash course in negotiating relationships, power dynamics, expectations and responsibility. 

Gillian Riddell started working early — at a concession stand when she was 13 — and while sometimes, she says, she now feels like she's been working her entire life, all the experiences she gained proved to be invaluable.

"I found that there were a ton of advantages," said Riddell.

"Learning about the expectations of your employers, of your supervisors ... about how to be professional and working with your fellow co-workers. You learn to get a long and to get the job done." 

Of course, there are downsides, and Riddell is firm that her children won't work until they are much older than she was.

Like many, she had her own experiences with inappropriate behaviour in the workplace and situations she was too young to be in, she says.

"There were definitely a lot of questionable supervisors that I worked with, whether they were creepy or they were bullies. That's some of the things that I do think about when I think about [my children] going off and getting jobs as younger teens."

Lessons worth more than money

For Lynn Kinna, the benefits of working young have far outweighed the negatives for her two teens, she says.

With clear discussions around ensuring their grades don't slip, and her children not relying on her for rides to and from their jobs, Kinna says it's truly been a positive experience for her son and daughter.

"They are learning not only how hard it is to make money, but what does that workforce look like when you are interacting with the public? There's this new understanding and compassion and they're getting a personal benefit."

It's also given Kinna's children a greater perspective on what working parents have gone through while raising them, making them more likely to help out around the house despite being tired from a long day at work, she says. 

Learning lessons through failure

What should parents do once their teen starts to bring home the bacon? Very little, it turns out.  

Private wealth manager Mark Ting says an important part of managing money is first mismanaging it and suffering the consequences. 

"The best way to learn from anything is by making mistakes," said Ting.

"What I generally do, even though it pains me to do it, is to allow my kids to fail miserably at their first investments or budgeting and what not. The main thing I can do as a parent is to not bail them out when they need [more] money."

Ting says it's the perfect time for them to falter financially: the stakes are incredibly low while they are living at home, not paying rent and eating all your food. The mistakes they make now can teach them how to avoid those pitfalls when they have much more to lose.

We want our kids to be able to take care of themselves in so many ways, and financial freedom and intelligence are some of the most important ways they can be independent of us one day.

Jobs are a necessity, but they can also be enriching, enjoyable and educational — and if they aren't, I hope there is less pressure to "suck it up" or consider themselves lucky to even have a job. If we can provide more safe spaces for kids to learn these lessons before the stakes are truly high, perhaps we can avoid another generation of overworked and stressed employees. 

And to all the teens who are working their first summer job, congrats and good luck. May your shifts be short and your tips large!


Amy Bell is a digital contributor to CBC. She can be heard weekdays on The Early Edition as the traffic and weather reporter and parenting columnist.