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In Praise of the Boring Summer Job: Life Lessons that Last

School is almost out for summer, and now the real-life learning is about to begin. I’m not talking about the prestigious internship won by beating hundreds of other applicants. I’m not talking about the student leadership conference in D.C. Nor am I talking about the school trip to Tanzania working with orphans that gives all the kids a great topic for their college essay.

No, I come to praise the hot, sweaty, greasy, mind-numbingly boring, low-skill jobs that have taught my kids more about real life in a few short months than they learn in nine months of school.

We have never been a fancy summer job type family. No siree—our kids have each enjoyed a succession of typical teen summer jobs that were really exciting for about two hours, and then became (surprise, surprise) just drudgery.

They have mowed lawns. They’ve scooped ice cream. They’ve been cashiers, bag boys, caddies, food servers, and strong young backs at a plant nursery.

Some of the things they have had to do were horrible: carrying a thirty-pound golf bag for six hours on a blazing, humid August day until vomiting as a result of heat exhaustion on the sixteenth green; scooping ice cream until their hand was curled into a claw for kids who drop their cone as soon as she handed it to them; lifting forty-pound bags of topsoil for eight-hour shifts and coming home too sweaty, sunburned, and sore to eat. They’ve cleaned up vomit, watched grown men throw tantrums and break their clubs over their knees, and been yelled at by crabby customers for failing to bag the different flavors of cat food separately.

What have these jobs taught them? A ton.

7 Life-Lessons Working Teaches Teens

I can’t even begin to catalog all the life lessons they have learned, some without even realizing it. But here are a few:

1. Work isn’t fun.

Your parents do it because they love you and you are very expensive. Say thank you.

2. Your education is a privilege.

Sometimes you may not feel like studying for Chem or reading The Merchant of Venice but school is a breeze compared to getting up every day and working hard at a demanding physical job. Be grateful.

3. Bosses can be demanding and unreasonable.

Employees need to either go along or figure out how to stand up for themselves when the need arises.

4. People can be terrible, rude, and demeaning to those with service jobs.

Be kind and courteous to everyone.

5. There are kind, generous, wonderful adults out there in the world.

They talk to the kid ringing up their groceries like a human being and treat them with interest and respect. Remember how that feels when you are an adult.

6. Needs and wants are not the same.

It takes 1.5 hours on your feet to pay for that $12 bottle of nail polish. Distinguish between need and want.

7. It feels awesome to earn your own money.

The things my kids learned at their summer jobs stuck with them in ways that surprised me. When it came time for my oldest son to write his college essay, he wrote about what he learned from watching the golfers for whom he caddied: patience, perseverance, humor, and how some handle adversity with anger and frustration while others opt for grace and good manners.

My daughter’s high school senior speech described what she had learned from her job working as a cashier at a grocery store: never to think she was better than anyone else and to treat each person she met as she herself would want to be treated.

Not many people remember Beowulf after tenth grade. Their summer jobs, however, have taught my kids things they will remember the rest of their lives: the value of money, the satisfaction of doing a job well, the importance of being neat, clean, and on time. And that their mother is not the only person in the world who cares if their shirt is tucked in.

Jane Parent

Jane Parent is senior editor of Your Teen.