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6 Bonus Life Lessons My Teens Learned From Their First Summer Jobs

Summer 2020 was long, quiet, boring, lonely, and filled with COVID-19 scares. By the time summer 2021 rolled around, I wanted my kids out of my house. I told them, “I don’t care what you do, just get out of your room every day. Go somewhere and get paid.”

My 17-year-old daughter whined and complained when I nagged her to fill out job applications. I think she didn’t “hear” me until my 19-year-old son sarcastically lobbed my philosophy at her: “It’s not about earning money, it’s about the experience,” 

Well, it was.

Some of their friends attended study programs or enjoyed the freedom of unscheduled days, (both of which I recognize as valuable experiences), but looking back on the life lessons my kids learned, insisting they join the workforce was the right call for them.

Life lessons my kids learned at their summer jobs:

1. Ask questions when you need more information.

When my daughter interviewed for a restaurant hostess position, they asked her a few questions, and then told her to report for training over the weekend. She didn’t ask for details about the job and she wasn’t even sure she was hired. She told me the manager didn’t ask her if she had questions, so she didn’t ask any. Did she know that part of her responsibilities would be food running? Or that they would take the cost of her uniform out of her first paycheck? Did she understand the pay rate and tip structure? No, no, and no!

My daughter learned it’s important to ask questions when you don’t understand something, or you don’t have enough information. She also learned the uncomfortable lesson that while it may be a manager’s responsibility to make sure employees understand their jobs and how the company works, not every manager communicates well. Welcome to the workplace, sweetie.

2. Keep the lines of communication open (and check your email, even though you think it’s only for old people).

On his first day of work as a property management assistant, my son’s manager had an emergency. Instead of texting him, she emailed to tell him not to report to work. Of course, he didn’t see the email until after he drove the twenty-five-minute commute to the office. He called me to complain.

When my daughter’s manager called her cell phone looking for her, she realized she missed an important email about her work schedule. She had to wear dirty work clothes, throw her hair in a messy bun and rush to work. Again, I heard complaints.

Now, having been through these situations, my kids won’t soon forget the importance of knowing how their employers communicate, making sure their managers know the best way to reach them, and adjusting to how the higher-ups prefer to communicate with them.

3. Make sure you know how you’re getting paid.

My son tried six times to make a mobile deposit before realizing the funds had already been direct-deposited into his bank account. He had been trying to deposit a paystub rather than a paycheck.

My daughter accidentally threw away her first paycheck. It mortified her to ask her manager for a new check, which she received minus the $35 stop payment fee.

Now my kids know that earning money comes with the responsibility of making sure their paycheck ends up in their bank account.

4. Some of your coworkers might not have your high work ethic.

My naive offspring could not understand how their co-workers showed up to work … and didn’t work. They asked: “How can they expect to just stand around?” “Why doesn’t anyone return customer phone calls? Isn’t that part of their job?” “Why don’t my coworkers and managers want to help?” I had to explain that punctuality, responsibility, and cooperation are not attributes everyone possesses. And then I told them to keep their standards high and to keep working hard because one day their initiative and dependability would be recognized and valued by their boss.

5. Be indispensable.

My father always says, “Do such a good job that when you leave, people will notice you’re gone.”

When my daughter took the time to learn something new and outside her job description, her manager called her a “rockstar,” and when summer ended, that same manager kept her on staff and gave her work a few days a week during my daughter’s senior year of high school.

Before heading back to college, my son emailed a thank you to the vice president who hired him. He wrote: “Thank you for the great summer job! My time spent there made me realize that despite how big a company is, every single employee affects the success and future of that company.” The gentleman wrote back: “Your observation is right on point. Thank you for being a part of our team and being so responsible, showing up on time and taking on every project with a good attitude.”

6. Be grateful for your many advantages, and widen your lens.

When my daughter discovered that her co-workers, young people not much older than she, were working to pay rent, college tuition, or to make car payments, she realized how fortunate she was to share a car with her brother and to work simply for the experience and extra cash.

My son realized how fortunate he was to have choices about what he wants to do with his life when he worked a summer job that for him was just temporary but for others was their career path.

By paying attention to other people’s stories, my kids learned that most people aren’t working because they want to earn some pocket money; they’re working because they need to pay their bills.

I know my kids would have preferred to sleep late and hang out with friends that summer, but I’m glad I pushed them to find jobs. Their experiences at those first jobs helped prepare them for their futures. Now, as my kids navigate college life, they’re still putting what they learned that summer to good use.

My kids can now communicate effectively with teachers, doctors, and administrators, and when they don’t understand something or need more information, they ask questions. They check their email accounts for important information and make sure they understand how bank accounts and financial transactions work. They also continue to work hard, manage their time well (not perfectly, but efficiently), and express gratitude for their education and financial freedom. Most importantly, they’ve developed empathy for people who need a paycheck and sometimes have to take jobs that they don’t really like just to cover essential expenses and the financial demands of everyday life.

Sheryl Zedeck Katz is an attorney who spent most of her career as a human resource professional and now writes essays and stories with unique insight into interpersonal relationships gained from her experience counseling and managing people.

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