There was an editorial in the New York Times yesterday about how most teenagers these days lack a decent work ethic, how most young adults have not had to hold an actual job, sheltered and shielded as they are by their parents' affluence. How teenagerhood has been prolonged well beyond its intended lifespan.
Oy vay, I say, that we need a piece in the Times telling us that teenagers should get a job. There is nothing more fun than having this conversation with my peers. We immediately launch into a list of all the jobs we had when we were kids. We were the layer of laborers underneath the adult machine — where the really important and glamorous work was being done — keeping the world humming as the watchers of kids and the deliverers of papers and the schleppers of golf clubs and handlers of food and the washers of dishes and the fillers of gas tanks at the marina.
We wanted money, for godsake, we had things we wanted to buy. Money was freedom. For me it meant I could acquire the saffron-colored Levis corduroys I so coveted and not have to settle for the generic-brand jeans sold at the discount store offered up by my mom. We not-quite-adults had specific ideas about money and what we wanted to spend it on: pot, cars, gas to move the cars, movie tickets, records, clothes. We wanted those things and most of us had to pay for them ourselves. I knew kids whose parents were rich, but I didn't know any rich kids. The wealthy parents I knew, quite blessedly, did not extend a blank check to their kids. We all worked.
Parents today are making a lot of mistakes, for sure. It's pretty much woven into the parenting dynamic: you grow up and you know you want kids, then your friends start having kids and you really want kids, then you have kids and you're completely shocked by how hard it is to have kids. It actually comes as a bit of a surprise that kids are a lifelong commitment. Not many people are cut out for a lifelong commitment. So, naturally, we make a lot of mistakes along the way.
I concur with the piece in the paper yesterday. I think that one of the biggest mistakes parents are making is not insisting, demanding, really, that their kids get a job and keep a job. In a restaurant, taking care of little kids, at a camp, pulling weeds and planting shrubs, clerking in a store; it doesn't really matter. Everyone should have the opportunity to know the exhaustion of a 7-hour waitressing shift or the tedium of a full day taking care of little kids. Everyone should know what it feels like to have to get up before the sun, in the summer and go to work, when you would really much rather go to the beach. Every kid should grow up knowing the satisfaction of handing a cashier money they have earned themselves in exchange for something they really want.
I have met a number of people in my life who grew up with tremendous wealth, who never had to work, even in adulthood. And I will tell you that many of them are among the most miserable humans I have known. To be given everything in this life, that the rest of us either have to work or save to acquire, seems to be a kind of terrible curse. I have noticed, too, that the wealthier the family, the deeper the veins of alcohol and drug abuse, suicidal tendencies and even, oddly, criminal acts.
I had a great job, starting when I was about 12, each summer until I was 19. I was a nanny for a family who lived on a farm in Kentucky. Living on a thoroughbred horse farm in Kentucky took me far away from my little bubble of suburban upstate New York life. I met the south head-on and I loved everything about it. I can still smell the boxwood and feel the heavy summer heat. When I was eating a banana with peanut butter this morning, I was reminded of the many days I stopped at the health food store in Lexington and got a banana, peanut butter and honey sandwich — that was the cutting edge of healthy eating in 1984. But the truly great thing about the peanut butter sandwich-buying story was that Libby, the mom whose kids I was caring for, gave me two things a teenager needs most: freedom and responsibility. She allowed me to drive all over the place, she allowed me to take her two young kids to the pool; she trusted me, and I, in turn, rose to the occasion. I bought the peanut butter, banana and honey sandwich with the money I was earning working for Libby and her wonderful husband, Brerry, taking care of Bret and Lucy. And I was and am forever changed because of those summer days in the bluegrass.
Sam is driving across the country right now, by himself. He worked, washing windows for the third year in a row, this summer, and is headed back to Lake Tahoe. School doesn't start for a while, but he loves it there so much that he headed back early. He found a home for himself and he knows that if he runs out of his summer earnings, he can always ... get a job.
Coco is headed to Martha's Vineyard today, where she enjoys immense freedom. She has been going to West Chop since she was a baby and there she has a tight posse of friends. They ride their bikes everywhere. They play tennis, swim, buy candy at the Chop Shop. There she is like a mermaid with legs, so connected is she to the sea and the island. In the weeks leading up to her MV time, she does chores to earn the money she wants to buy the candy and ice cream and all the other crap a kid wants on their summer vacation.
Jobs, chores, freedom and responsibility, these are good things. Kids need them. If it takes me an hour to earn ten dollars, I know what it means to buy a pair of sneakers that cost a hundred.
Listen, I know how nice it is to lull around doing nothing. I could sit all day in the sun, reading, thinking. I love having the time to do what I want to do. I have been so poor in this life that I couldn't afford a cup of tea. And I have been so wealthy that I vacationed in a place so exclusive that Tommy Hilfiger knew it was safe to invite us Vermont bums over for an afternoon of touch football. I have learned this about myself: it's good to be hungry. I get a lot more done there on the edge of life.
Godspeed to my kids, out there in the world, doing good things, filling their tank and their belly with things they have bought with money they earned themselves. For certain I am here for them when they fall, but the fall has to come first. Amen.