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Teens Who Work and Attend School

Balancing Work and School for Your Teen

Seventeen-year-old Kevin Wren spends about 50 weekends each year selling funnel cakes at carnivals with his grandparents. While the Morgan, Texas, teen enjoys the money he makes, he knows his friends think he's crazy for having such a limited social life.

"They think I'm nuts, because I don't have any free time," he says. "Oh well, I gotta make the money for my truck and everything else I spend it on." Everything else includes his own computer, television, telephone, cable TV, Internet connection and bicycle, as well as the insurance, maintenance and gasoline for his truck. And like many teenage boys, he also wants money to spend on his girlfriend.

In spite of his heavy workload, he received only one B on his latest report card; the remainder were A's. He is even taking a college English class and plans to go to college next year to study computers.

Teen Work Force

Kevin Wren is among the majority of American teens who are combining work with a full schedule of high school classes, according to David Wegman, professor and chair of the department of work environment at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

Wegman, who also spearheaded the committee that produced "Protecting Youth at Work: Health, Safety, and Development of Working Children and Adolescents in the United States" in 1998, said it is a good idea for most teens to have jobs.

"I think they learn aspects of responsibility, punctuality, dealing with people, money management and some independence," he says.

But as usual, too much of a good thing can have negative consequences. Wegman suggests teens not work more than 20 hours per week. Some should work even less, depending on their grades at school and how many extracurricular commitments they have.

Ideally, Wegman says teens should get a job that will contribute to their education, rather than simply provide money.

This is exactly how Donna Bastian, of Yorkville, Ill., viewed jobs for her four teenage children. "I presented the whole job thing as a privilege to be earned by getting good grades first," she says. "Then, I only allowed jobs that were in line with their interest or something they could learn from – not just a job for a job's sake."

Bastian's 23-year-old daughter, Amanda, is a musician. As a teen, she played for weddings and performed in chamber music ensembles as part of the Chicago Youth Symphony. Her daughter will soon graduate from college and will begin auditioning for professional symphonies in January.

Striking a Balance

Whatever the job, teens must find the balance between school and work. Rita Hoover, of Geneva, Ill., said her son works at a local fast food restaurant from 5 to 8 p.m. during the week and 5 to sometimes 10 p.m. on the weekends. "Max balances his work and life quite well," she says. "He only works one or two nights during the week and has a study hall last period so he gets most of his homework done then."

Unfortunately, not all employers are so thoughtful about teenagers' requirements for sleep and studying. Kim Dechert, of Geneva, Ill., said her son's employer expected him to work until 10 p.m. on school nights."I didn't like that," she says. "I thought it was too late, especially if there was still homework to do or tests to study for."

Obviously, parents should not allow a teenager to get a job if they are failing any of their classes at school, and they should have them quit their job if grades take a noticeable drop. In the interim, Wegman says parents should always be talking to their kids about their job and school, making sure that homework assignments are being submitted in time and that they are getting enough sleep. Parents also need to be aware of the laws regarding teen labor, to be certain their child is not being asked to do anything illegal or dangerous.

Wegman recalls the recent death of a 15-year-old worker who was being supervised by a 16-year-old worker in Massachusetts. "Neither of them were very knowledgeable about any risks," he explains.

Keeping Teens Safe

Wegman says it is not always easy to talk to teenagers about their jobs because they want to separate from their parents and become independent. But it is vitally important that parents make the effort to communicate.

"Youth are working in jobs that are particularly on the front lines of interacting with the public, where they can also be subject to verbal abuse and sexual harassment," Wegman says. "It's tough for kids to be in a position to resist that or understand it."

Furthermore, teens will often perform dangerous tasks because they usually do not know the laws and because they want to be good workers. Unfortunately, Wegman says, teens are twice as likely as adults to be injured on the job.

The Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits minors from driving a car or truck, operating tractors or other heavy equipment and using power tools, among other more obvious prohibitions such as coal mining, logging, meat packing and manufacturing explosives. There are also hour limitations based on a teen's age. Youth ages 14 and 15 may work up to three hours on a school day and eight hours on a non-school day for a total of 18 hours in a school week or 40 hours in a non-school week.

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