Dear Mr. Dad: My fifteen-year-old wants to take a part-time job at a local fast food place. Actually, I’m not so sure he wants the actual job, just the money that goes along with it. Although I think it would be a great growth opportunity, I’m also worried that his grades will suffer with college just around the corner. I’m thinking of increasing his weekly allowance instead to make up at least part of the difference. What do you suggest?

A: Remember the first time you saw one of your classmates behind a counter a local store? If you’re like me, you were consumed with envy for the power, independence, and the adulthood it seemed to represent. I immediately began badgering my parents to let me join the Mysterious Society of the Working Teens.
So first of all, I wouldn’t assume that it’s all about the money. There’s probably a healthy dose of yearning for independence and maturity, and increasing the allowance might would have a negative effect in those areas.
Let’s take a look at the pluses and minuses:

First of all, a job can teach skills and responsibility that will come in handy in college and the adult world beyond. It can make your child more confident and more autonomous. And that’s just the job itself. In addition, the extra cash creates opportunities to make decisions, to feel responsible, and to practice managing a budget—something many young people learn too little about too late (and plenty of adults never quite master ever).
As for the risks, you’re right—it is possible for a teen’s job to interfere with academics. But it can also require a student to manage his time more efficiently and become better organized. Recent studies indicate that the number of hours worked is the key. Students who work a reasonable amount (10-15 hours a week during the school year) actually earn higher grades than those who don’t work at all. But those working 20 hours or more suffer a definite drop in academic achievement—which, as you noted, is not something your son should aspire to in the years leading up to the college admissions grind. At the same time, students who work too many hours may miss out on the sports, activities, and just plain socializing that make for a well-rounded person.
Here are some tips for approaching the issue:

  1. Try to find out exactly why he wants the job. It may not just be about the money. If it’s about increased responsibility, for example, or feeling more grown-up, there may be other ways to achieve this that would satisfy him, such as greater control over his allowance spending, a later curfew, or driver’s ed classes. On the other hand, the job may be just the thing.
  2. If you do decide the job is a good move, be sure to emphasize the importance of maintaining good grades. Consider setting a grade point minimum as an ongoing requirement for getting and keeping the job.
  3. Put sound money management habits into place. Help him create a budget that includes saving, spending, and charity.
  4. Make a plan to reassess the situation every few months. Don’t hesitate to pull the plug if the job just isn’t working out to the overall benefit of your child and your family.

Done thoughtfully, a part-time job can offer your child many benefits and growth opportunities. Remembering that there’s more to it than money can help you navigate this natural step in your teen’s life.