The 4 Lessons I Hope My Teens Learn From Their 1st Summer Jobs

Yep, even First Daughter Sasha Obama has gotten herself a summer job. She is staffing the drive-thru window at one of her parents’ favorite seafood joints on Martha’s Vineyard, accompanied to work for her four-hour shifts by six Secret Servicemen.

Summer jobs are a rite of passage and both my teenagers have them for the first time this year. Here are a few lessons I hope they learn:

1. The customer is always right, except for when he’s wrong.

Service jobs are just that: You serve people. For a lot of teenagers, this is a new experience. It means that you bring people the food they ordered, ring up their groceries, or ask them if they found everything OK as they went up and down the aisles. You are supposed to smile while you do all these things because your job, in essence, is to ensure that your customer is happy. 

When a customer isn’t happy and let’s you know about it, your job is to try and make right what he sees as wrong. And therefore, you bring his steak back to the kitchen and ask for one cooked rare even though he order it medium. Pleasing the customer; that’s the job.

Some customers, however, are Class A jerks. They change their mind about what they want to eat after you’ve put in their orders. They want you to accept a return of something they got last Christmas and don’t have a receipt for. They stiff you on a tip because filling up their water glasses 11 times was somehow not good enough.

Service jobs suck. They generally don’t pay well and the balance of power in the relationship is skewed entirely against you. 

The real lesson I hope my kids learn is that it is not possible to please all of the people all of the time and you will only make yourself crazy for trying. That, and please go to college.

2. Caring for kids is the hardest job you can have.

My daughter is working as a summer nanny for several families. She works every weekday, most evenings, and a good chunk of every weekend. When she’s not working, she collapses on her bed with her headphones on to drown out the world. She’s learned that chasing after kids all day and keeping them happy is hard work.

My husband thinks her babysitting business may be the best form of birth control we could preach because she is seeing first-hand how relentless child care can be. “Why don’t they get along?” she asks me of two brothers. “They just can’t take turns!” she says incredulously of this discovery, forgetting about her relationship with her own brother. When one zigs, the other wants to zag.

She’s taken them to the beach, to the community pool, to the museum, the park, the library and home with her to show them her room. She reads to them, plays soccer with them, goes on hikes with them and sometimes they go bug-hunting and later look up what they’ve found afterward online. She’s taught them to bake cookies, to recognize black widow spiders, and how to handle a jelly fish without getting stung when he needs to be put back in the ocean.

She’s the babysitter every kid asks for because she actually engages with them instead of plopping in a DVD and pretending it’s fun to watch “Frozen” for the 150th time.

But she has learned a lot about herself from the experience: Kids are amazing little people. Their joy is contagious, their laughs infectious. But their needs are endless and her patience ― at 18 ― isn’t. Another good reason for college.

3. Community service makes you feel good, including about yourself.

My son puts it very succinctly and honestly: He didn’t actually expect to like the camp volunteer job I made him take. It’s not his thing. Hanging around all day on a school playground with a bunch of little kids, no access to video games, no pretty girls to ogle or waves to surf? Totally not his thing. And even worse ― he’d be working at the camp for community service hours ― not even getting paid! I was kidding, right?

Surprise, surprise! He’s having fun and I think I know why. He likes that the young campers look up to him. He’s a cool guy and they get it. Sometimes you need to see your reflection in someone else’s eyes to know what you really look like.

My son isn’t much of a talker, but he does exude a leadership vibe. And so he’s become a Pied Piper of the day camp; he’s the counselor who the younger campers want to hang with, want to follow and be around. When they pick teams, they all want him on theirs. When he takes off his sweaty t-shirt and wraps it around his head dude-style, the boys copy him. If he brings a new energy drink for lunch, the next day three of them show up with it. Being near him, being around him ― is almost as good as being him, they seem to think. And he, in turn, likes how this makes him feel. 

“Camp is OK,” he volunteered the other night at dinner. “It’s good.” High praise from my man of few words. You know what else is good? Anything that builds up your confidence and makes you feel valued.

4. There will always be one memorable moment ― teachable or otherwise.

For my babysitting daughter, it came when a family’s dog got out. Dilemma: Leave the kids and go searching for the dog or bring the kids with you and slow down the search-and-rescue effort? The sun was setting; the coyotes setting their tables for dinner. She took the kids and fortunately found the dog after a stressful 35 minutes. She also found some poison oak, but relief that she hadn’t just acted irresponsibly overcame any itchiness. 

For my son, the moment involved his cellphone. While a month ago I would have argued that it was permanently affixed to his hand, the phone fell out of his shorts’ pocket one-too-many times at camp. He is phone-less and after an initial begging-for-a-replacement period where he pulled out all the stops ― “What if there’s an emergency and I can’t reach you?” ― he has gotten used to it. More than that actually. “In a weird way, it feels good to not have a phone and be checking it all the time,” he said.

Yep, it’s called living in the moment, and it’s a pretty good lesson to learn from a summer job.

Hoping the First Daughter will be as fortunate.

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