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Sandy Banks

Instead of Summer Freedom, a First Job

August 06, 2000|Sandy Banks

Summer is almost over and my daughter has yet to enjoy the fruits of this season of freedom. Lazy mornings in bed, afternoons of Jenny Jones and MTV, beach outings and mall excursions and hours on the phone with friends. . . . My 15-year-old is missing it all this summer, because she is at work while most of her friends are at play.

She rises early, packs her lunch, her clipboard, her swimsuit and towel and heads off to summer camp to spend her days in the sweltering heat herding dozens of little kids from go-carts to ponies to arts and crafts.

It is her first full-time, paycheck-providing job, and though it is not hard labor by any means, it has been full of hard lessons about life and leisure and little kids. The work world, she's learned, can be less forgiving than family, friends and teachers.

It is one thing to forget your biology homework. It is another to arrive at work without the list that tells you which child is allergic to peanuts, which one can't stand to touch anything sticky, which one is apt to run off without warning the minute you turn your back. A swimming pool no longer means recreation, but a stint at the top of a giant slide, coaxing balky 6-year-olds to stay "on your bottom, feet first, one at a time, please."

And if it is hard dealing with two little sisters, try entertaining a dozen first-graders, who go from laughing to crying in a nanosecond, pull on your clothes when they want your attention, and lean in near your face and spit when they talk.

Welcome, my dear, to the proletariat.

*

When I was young, a summer job was a rite of passage, a ticket to freedom. Just as turning 16 meant driver's license, turning 14 meant work permit. My first summer job, much like my daughter's, was herding kids on a school playground for the princely wage of $1.25 an hour.

And while work still defines summer for many adolescents, the number of teenagers and young adults wading into the summer work force is dwindling each year. Last year, only about 60% of America's 16 million teenagers took on summer jobs--the lowest percentage in almost 35 years, according to reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Experts say it is not that kids are lazy, but that they feel less of a need to work. The booming economy has boosted family fortunes enough that many teenagers no longer need to pay their own freight. Mom and Dad can afford to buy their cars, pay for their insurance, keep them outfitted in Tommy Hilfiger, FUBU and Guess.

Many parents who spent their teenage years working want to spare their offspring the tedium and drudgery that summer jobs can bring. "Let them be kids," says my friend Richard, who spent every summer working as a busboy at the coffee shop near his New Jersey home. His 16-year-old twins have spent most of this summer at the beach. "They have all their lives to work," he says.

The high cost of college and the increasingly competitive nature of the admissions process have convinced many parents that it makes more sense to send Junior to science camp or music workshops than off to work flipping burgers or stocking grocery store shelves.

And stiffer high school graduation requirements have forced many students into summer school instead of the job market. In 1994, just 20% of teenagers attended summer school, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, almost 30% signed up for courses, ranging from required remedial classes to enrichment programs to get a jump on college.

"I have kids who want to work, but their parents want them off studying marine biology or pumping up their basketball skills, because that's what's going to impress the colleges or get them a scholarship," said one high school counselor, who didn't want his San Fernando Valley school named. "I tell them kids learn a lot from working. But they figure a summer lifeguarding or taking tickets at the movies is just wasted time."

*

I don't know that what my daughter is learning will boost her SAT scores or enhance her resume. But I don't think she is wasting time.

There is something to be said for learning to draw on your energy and ingenuity to keep a dozen rambunctious 6-year-olds entertained while they're waiting their turn in the pony line. There is a sense of accomplishment that comes from comforting a little boy who misses his mommy, or drawing a smile from a disconsolate child who has just spilled ketchup on her new Pokemon sneakers.

And her complaining aside ("It's sooo hot. I'm tired. These kids drive me crazy"), I know my daughter values her job, as well. I see it each night in the careful preparations she makes, in the ways she rises early each morning and badgers me to hurry when it's time to leave.

It's not just the money--her paychecks, yet uncashed, are pinned to the bulletin board in her room, alongside the program from her winter formal, a birthday party invitation and old Disneyland ticket stubs.

It is the notion that someone thinks enough of her to pay her for her time, her effort, her expertise. It's the realization that she's good at something, a sign of growing maturity. And it is forging a bond between mother and daughter, as her days begin to resemble mine, with all the fun and frustration of deadlines and duties and little kids.

I find myself smiling each afternoon when she climbs into the car, smelling of sweat and sun block and chlorine. Because I remember when she was small and I'd come in the door from work each evening and she'd greet me each time with a kiss and question: "So how was your day at work, Mommy?"

Now it is Mom with the kiss and the question. And her answer? Like mine: "Good day at work . . . but it's great to be home."

*

Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. She can be reached at sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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