In the comments to Russell’s missionary post, there seems to be a strong consensus potential missionaries need to learn to work hard. And I agree; missionary work demands hard work. A corollary, according to many of the comments, is that kids these days do not, in fact, learn to work hard.
That assertion I find a little more problematic. Partly, it’s because I teach Millennials professionally and, in my experience, many of them do, in fact, work hard. And partly it’s because the accusation of laziness is an evergreen one; every generation, it seems, considers the subsequent generation the laziest ever (conveniently, it seems to me, forgetting their own youthful laziness).
Still, there is certainly value in figuring out how to teach our kids how to work hard. As we do so, though, we need to recognize that the world our kids face is different than the world we faced, and that, perhaps, the ways we learned to work aren’t the optimal ways to teach our kids to work.
A good number of commenters argue that our kids need to learn to work by doing yard work or babysitting or other, similar forms of informal market labor. But, for various reasons, I don’t think those are necessarily optimal.[fn1]
Why not? I guess, before laying out my reasons, I should provide a handful of assumptions. I’m assuming middle-class kids whose parents can meet their needs, who plan on attending college and, likely, plan on serving missions. (My criticisms of informal market labor probably work for kids who don’t meet those criteria, too, although for different reasons.)
Babysitting as Work
A mission costs $400 per month, which means a mission will cost boys $9,600 and girls $7,200. There are additional costs, including clothes and (sometimes) bikes and other things; the Deseret News estimates such additional expenses as falling somewhere between $800 and $2,000.
Then we have college. In the 2013-2014 year, the average sticker price for a private college (including room, board, and fees) was about $41,000. For in-state students attending a state school, that average prices was $18,000.[fn2]
How much does babysitting pay? In Chicago, we pay about $15 an hour. That seems roughly in line with other urban areas. I’ve heard the going rate is significantly lower in Utah. For our purposes, let’s assume our babysitter can make $10/hour. Let’s further assume that our babysitter starts babysitting when she is 14,[fn3] and manages to babysit three times a week for three hours each job, 50 weeks a year, until she is 18.[fn4] That means she’ll earn $18,000 over her four years of babysitting (which she’ll reduce by $1,800 in tithing). That’ll basically let her pay for her full mission, one year of in-state college, or just less than one semester at a private school.
This isn’t to say that babysitting is a bad thing, or that it doesn’t teach a kid to work. But it’s not really a viable way to save for college; rather, it’s a way to have money for consumption. The thing is, though, that babysitting—or, at least, babysitting nine hours a week—is probably not the best use of a teenager’s time. Because the tuition costs I mentioned are just the sticker price. If a teenager devotes the nine hours a week to studying, improving her grades, and participating in relevant extracurriculars, she could, potentially, get some sort of merit scholarship (based, for example, on grades, athletics, or music). If she got half tuition at a private school, suddenly those hours wouldn’t just be worth $18,000—they’ll be worth $82,000. That is, the return on her investment of time will be more than 4.5 times what the return on babysitting would have been.[fn5]
Again, that’s not to say that kids shouldn’t babysit. A future half-tuition scholarship doesn’t pay for dinner and a movie, or a new pair of shoes, today. Still, when we’re thinking about how to teach our kids to work, we should take into account what will provide them with a decent return, not just what we did as kids.
Farms and Gardens
Farming is hard work. Heck, gardening is hard work. I did a fair amount of gardening and lawn mowing as a kid growing up in the suburbs of San Diego.
But it’s important to note that we’re not primarily a rural Church, and the world isn’t primarily a rural world, today. My kids don’t mow lawns. They don’t pull weeds. Why not? Because we don’t have a lawn to mow, or a garden to weed. We live in an apartment in a very big city. My kids could probably count the number of people they know nearby who have grass and/or gardens on one hand.
So that’s not a viable way for me to teach my kids to work. And for more and more of the Church and the culture at large, that’s not going to be a way to learn to work.
A bunch of people mentioned disdainfully that kids these days don’t even know how to do laundry. Is that true? I don’t know. But, as Mark B. pointed out, laundry isn’t that hard to learn.
What’s more, the laundry you learn to do may not carry over into your mission. My freshman year of college, I got good at separating my whites and colors and putting coins into the machines in the basement of Deseret Towers.
Then I got called to Brazil. In São Paulo, at least in the 90s where I was, we didn’t have washing machines and dryers. Instead, we hand-washed our clothes in outdoor sinks with built-in washboards and dried them on clotheslines.
Which is to say, my experiences washing my own clothes didn’t carry over. At. All. To. My. Mission.
So What to Do?
First, we should probably keep in mind that the teen unemployment rate is somewhere around 21 percent. That’s about 3.5 times the general unemployment rate. So telling kids to get a job is probably not a viable solution.
Second, we should keep in mind what the best type of work is for our kids looking forward. That best type of work may not be remunerated, especially if our kids are looking to college. It may be, instead, studying, practicing the viola, interning, volunteering, or interning.
In the end, just because something (babysitting, mowing the lawn, or whatever) taught me to work as a teenager doesn’t mean that it is the best choice for my kids; instead, I need to do the work as a parent to figure out how to best teach my kids to work.
[fn1] I’m not saying, of course, that kids who want to babysit or mow lawns shouldn’t. There’s certainly value in both. But using lawn mowing or babysitting as the way to teach a work ethic misses the mark, as I’ll argue.
[fn2] It’s worth noting, of course, that not everyone pays the sticker price.
[fn3] Why 14? Because in Chicago, that seems like the absolute minimum age for babysitters. YMMV.
[fn4] Note that I’m trying to make the assumptions high. Even if you’re part of the Baby-sitters Club, I suspect that babysitting 9 hours a week, 50 weeks a year is an unlikely amount of babysitting to do.
[fn5] Note that the study/practice/whatever isn’t actually worth 4.5 times as much as the babysitting: there’s always the chance that she won’t get the scholarship; to actually figure out the value, we’d have to do some sort of risk-adjusted calculation, where she has a 100% chance of earning the $18,000, but her chance of getting the scholarship is something less than 100%.