Parenting Q&A: We want our kids to work service jobs as teens. Our friends are horrified.

Q: While I have two young kids in elementary school, I have been thinking ahead to their time in high school (I teach high school) and am wondering your take on this. My husband and I both grew up middle-upper class. When I was in college, I went against my parents’ wishes and took a part-time job at a chain coffee shop. They wanted me to focus on school. From that experience of being treated somewhat poorly by customers, I now treat service workers with kindness, respect and tips that I possibly wouldn’t have done without actually being in their shoes. My husband feels the same, having worked at a chain restaurant as well. Both of us think that working in a service job is character building for teens.

When this came up in a hypothetical with friends who also have young kids, they were horrified. They felt like we were saying we purposefully want to expose our kids to people who will treat them rudely just to knock them down a couple pegs. While that isn’t quite what we want, indirectly, yes, I think for kids that have many privileges - as ours will - it is a good idea for them to experience what other people go through.

When the hypothetical becomes real as our kids get older, of course so much will depend on what’s actually happening with them. But are we wrong to want our kids to experience what it’s like to work at a service job?

A: This question isn’t about parenting or your instincts about your children; it’s about you projecting so far into the future that you are causing yourself agita. It’s also about you listening to your friends when you already know what is right for your family.

I have a memory of being, maybe, 7 years old and seeing a man empty city trash cans. I said to my father, “That is sad, that job; I feel sorry for him.” Without missing a beat, my father said, “Every job has value. Whether you empty trash or are the president of a bank. You work hard and well at every job, and it has value. You are never above any work, Meghan.” It stopped me in my childhood tracks and changed me. I have worked every kind of job since. And, like you say, customers and management alike treating me poorly taught me to respect every type of job. I simply would not appreciate service work if I hadn’t done it, and I feel that is true for most people.

So, on the face of it, there is nothing wrong with wanting your children to work. Work is as essential to humans as play; we are creatures who like to make meaning and accomplish tasks, big and small. Children learn through work, and love the sense of purpose that a job well-done gives them. Even two children in elementary school can begin to work with small chores like folding laundry, helping with dishes, pulling weeds, etc. You should not wait until high school to give your kids those kinds of responsibilities. In fact, the longer you wait to teach your children to work, the harder it may be for them to take on these service jobs.

Other than focusing on right now instead of years in the future, I also urge you to focus on values rather than narrow outcomes. Instead of, “my children will waitress,” reframe it as, “our family values work of all types.” The value makes room for any inevitability. What if one of your children isn’t suited for service work? Or decides to throw themselves into Scouts or a school venture? This is to say that work can look different for every human, so be sure to stay open as the years go by.


Finally, when you bring something up to friends and they balk, you have to figure out what you’re arguing for. Are you insecure and need approval? Are you hurt that your friends don’t share the same parenting values? Do you need them to? It is perfectly acceptable to agree to disagree and keep on keepin’ on, while secretly knowing that they may be raising some potential spoiled brats.

It’s not about whether you believe all teens must do service work or that teens should not work at all. Sticking to one extreme or another is not the goal. Raising children who can experience some hardship and feel loved is the goal; keep that as your North Star. Good luck.

Meghan Leahy

Meghan writes about parenting for the Washington Post. She's the mother of three daughters and the author of "Parenting Outside the Lines." She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and secondary education and a master’s degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach. Send a question about parenting to