I was shopping in the produce section of Whole Foods, when my cell phone rang and I heard my daughter’s breathless voice on the other end of the line.
“I got the job,” she said. “He offered it to me and I said yes.”
Julianna had just turned 14 and was determined to spend this summer earning income. The list of things she wants the money for is both long term and immediate. She wants the freedom to purchase as much lip gloss as she desires from Forever 21. And she wants to save most of her earnings for the prestigious college she’s determined to get into.
In the weeks leading up to her birthday, she’d researched what companies hired young teens in our community.
“You’ll let me work if I get a job, right?” she asked. Some of her friend’s parents wouldn’t let their kids work, wanting them to focus on school and enjoy the last remnants of childhood freedom for as long as they could.
I understood the instinct to keep Julianna out of the work world for as long as possible, but she was determined to start earning a paycheck. She wanted her independence, and I wanted her to spend less time in her room on her devices, and more time in the real world.
We live within walking distance of a famous amusement park, which hires teens to run games and attractions during the busy spring and summer months. It seemed like the most logical place to apply first.
The day after her birthday, Julianna completed the online application on her phone in the backseat of my car. I’d never seen Julianna so motivated. Within minutes of clicking send, she was immediately offered a phone interview. I was surprised, but then I reasoned it was probably just a quick informational interview, and she’d be called in for something face-to-face if it went well.
The night before the interview, she lay in my bed, and we went over potential questions including why she wanted to work at the amusement park, its most famous and historic attraction, and what her previous experience was with work and volunteering.
Julianna could talk about little else until the day of her interview.
“I want her to be treated well,” my husband said.
Summer Jobs and Teenagers
I never worked as a young teen, preferring to spend my summers watching soap operas and idling away time at the mall. I worried about the unkind reputation of minimum wage employers and I was skeptical about her employer treating her well.
My husband, though, worked as a young teen at an amusement park near his home in southern California. He has some entertaining stories to share about his time working there (once he charged a customer $400 for a hamburger); but more importantly, the work he did as a teen contributed to the strong work ethic he has today.
Studies have shown that work can contribute to healthy development, and that teens who work, even occasionally, were more likely to attend 4-year colleges and quickly obtain degrees.
My husband’s experience and those studies made me hopeful that our daughter would have a similarly positive work experience.
Julianna had a short day of school on the day of her interview, and after I picked her up, I went grocery shopping, so she’d have some privacy in the house.
I was inspecting a crown of broccoli when I felt my phone buzz.
I was the first person she called to tell the news, but as soon as I heard the words I felt an internal shift — a sense of things changing in a way where they would never go back to how they’d been.
If she took this summer job, for the first time ever, I wouldn’t be signing her up for summer camps. We wouldn’t have lazy mornings together, followed by strolls to the beach to play frisbee. Summer had always felt both too long, and impossibly short — the way I sometimes think of Julianna’s childhood.
Despite the sinking feeling that important time with her was slipping away, I wasn’t going to stop her.
Julianna is an exemplary student, and I knew she could handle working a few hours every week on top of her school assignments.
When I got back to the house, she ran down the stairs beaming. “I have so much paperwork to do!” she exclaimed.
We spent the afternoon together as I helped her fill out her W-4 form and then track down the other necessary bureaucratic paperwork: her birth certificate and passport and a work permit she needed signed by her school.
I remember Julianna as a small toddler, how she clung to me as she rode the same amusement park’s carousel before braving her own stationary horse. She used to be so wary of new experiences, yet here she is, doing something new. I’m excited to see her growing and becoming more independent, but I’m also worried because she still tends towards being shy and I know this new experience will test her. She’ll interact with strangers during every shift. What will she do if young children cry when they lose a game? How will she handle adults who become angry if they don’t win a prize? How will she handle herself when forced to live outside her carefully curated bubble?
The only way forward is to put aside my doubt and worry and trust she’ll figure it out or will know who to ask for help. My daughter is smart, motivated, determined, and resourceful, and I believe she can learn the skills she needs to take care of herself.