Jewish World Review July 20, 2004 / 2 Menachem-Av, 5764

Susanna Rodell

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Consumer Reports

Industrious kids should get the opportunity to pick up a few bucks | The child labor laws, instituted for good and humanitarian reasons, may need some review. I say this as the loving parent of four kids, two of them recently decanted from school into the labor market.

I know there's a problem out there still, that there are kids who may work too many hours to get through their schooling successfully. But I also think the laws as they now stand throw up too many barriers to enterprising kids who would like to help pay for some the expenses that a normal childhood and adolescence seem to demand these days.

For instance, it's summer, a time when, over the years, my kids have ended up, sometimes for hours at a time, at my office. They're bored. They'd like to make a few bucks for movies or CDs or clothes that normally wouldn't fit into our budget. But if they were to get paid a few dollars for doing some photocopying or typing or filing at the age of 12 or 13, my employer could get in big trouble.

My youngest child is into horses, an extremely expensive obsession, one that would strain the resources of most families, and she knows this. Since the age of 11, she has worked to offset the cost, often bartering labor for lessons or just the chance to ride. It's a long and glorious tradition, I believe; I did the same thing when I was a kid.

We are not talking about make-work here. She has mucked stalls, cleaned tack, pulled rocks out of pastures in the hot sun. On occasion she has been paid for these efforts with cash, and each time the person paying her, I fear, has risked prosecution.

Is this abusive? I think not. The first fall after a summer of this kind of work, some of her friends were going off to a weekend-long clinic that included instruction from top trainers and the chance to meet kids from all over the region. It was not something we would ever have been able to afford, but her savings made it possible.

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I'll never forget the pride in her voice as she told her friends that weekend: "I paid for this myself!"

I consider her lucky - to have a passion that's so consuming that she's willing to work for it, and to have the experience, from an early age, of being able to make her dreams a reality. I don't think any of the people she worked for exploited her. But in some instances, the whole arrangement probably spilled into illegal territory.

I contrast that child's experience with that of her sister. Her passion is dance, and the dance world does not depend so much on manual labor. In addition this child, though a delightful person, is not quite so industrious. Having graduated from high school, she decided she'd take a year off, get a job (in another state), take dance classes and chill out after 12 years of school. Great idea.

But when it came to actually looking for jobs - an unfamiliar enterprise - things got harder. She waited until all the good summer jobs were gone. Finding that it wasn't going to be possible to work in a trendy boutique or a video store (her first choices), she got discouraged. Having reached the sophisticated age of 18 without having done anything menial, she considered it beneath her dignity to bag groceries or wait on tables. Time was passing, the rent on her shared house was coming due, and I was trying to figure out how to nudge her, gently but firmly, toward reality.

As she started to digest the true nature of her situation, she became less picky. I ached for her - 18 and scared is not a fun place to be. And eventually she found work, through a friend, in a university office. Not very fulfilling but it pays her bills. When she tells me it's boring, I tell her she should be proud of herself for making her way in the world, and take the time to figure out where she wants to go, and how to get there. I also keep thinking that a little bit of experience with the working world along the way would have made this transition less traumatic.

No, of course I don't want to return to the days when 12-year-olds slaved in factories. But I don't think there's anything wrong with a 12-year-old spending a few hours a week running errands in an office, or sweeping floors, or grooming pets, or folding towels, or a thousand other small, necessary jobs a young person can do.

Sure, there's a job shortage and sure, we don't want to put kids in competition with adults who need to support themselves and their families. But around the edges, there are usually ways a kid can pick up a few bucks and learn to feel good about earning them. And when that happens, the people who reward their industry shouldn't need to fear the law.

Susanna Rodell is editorial-page editor of The Charleston Gazette. Comment by clicking here.


© 2004, The Charleston Gazette Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services