Teaching Children about Work and Wages
by Bob Hostetler
Piecework doesn’t pay. A salaried position usually pays more than hourly wages, but carries more responsibility. Time, material and expertise must be included in a job bid.
My children understood these concepts before they were ten. They learned more as well, such as what a subcontractor is, what “payroll deductions” mean, how to interview for a job and how to negotiate salary, hours and benefits. They didn’t learn these things from a public school or Junior Achievement, however. They learned them from their employer: me.
Hiring and Firing
It began one summer, when I launched a career as a full-time writer, which allowed me to be at home with my school-age children (I worked in a tiny corner of our bedroom, and my wife works outside the home). I suggested to my daughter, Aubrey, and my son, Aaron, that they supplement their small weekly allowance by working around the house. This accomplished several things, of course; it kept them busy, allowed me some valuable chunks of time with a minimum of distractions and taught them some important things in the process.
I explained very seriously that if they agreed to work for me, they would not be treated as my children but as my employees. They would have to be hired—and could be fired—just like anyone. They anxiously agreed.
Our agreement was simple at first. They could “apply” for a job before 10:00 a.m., Monday through Friday. They would be paid an hourly wage, but if they didn’t work the full time, their pay could be “docked,” and they could even be fired (for the rest of that day). If they were fired, they would lose that day’s wages.
They worked an average of five hours a week that summer, weeding and watering the garden, picking beans and strawberries, sorting recyclables, planting flowers and raking grass. They learned how to keep a time card and how to tell if strawberries are ready to be picked. They also learned the meaning of hard work, the value of completing a job and the importance of pleasing “the boss.”
Earning and Learning
The next year, I decided to try to accomplish a little more. At the beginning of the summer, I tacked a list of potential jobs on the refrigerator door. The jobs were separated into “piecework,” “hourly” and “contract” jobs. The list of hourly jobs contained those they had performed the previous summer and a few new tasks, such as trimming the grass along the fence line. They discovered they could also apply for “piecework,” such as pulling dandelions at a penny apiece, and for “contract” jobs, such as thoroughly cleaning the shed for an agreed-upon price (based upon an estimate of the time, material and expertise involved).
I insisted that they “interview” for each new job they wished to tackle. I conducted a five-minute interview with each, asking such questions as, “Where have you worked before?” and “What qualifications do you bring to this job?” After each interview, I stepped out of my employer role and praised them for what they had done well and briefly mentioned how they could have done better.
They learned quickly. They discovered very early that piecework doesn’t pay (which was part of my design, of course); pulling a dandelion a minute only brings in sixty cents for an hour’s work. However, I also learned a thing or two myself. Once, when my niece Rachel (who is a year older than Aubrey) was visiting for a few days, I allowed her to apply for jobs, just like Aubrey and Aaron. I was unprepared when this young Republican applied for the job of dusting my collection of fine books on a piecework basis. My children had prepared Rachel for the task of negotiating terms (as I had taught them); I explained the laborious process of removing each book from the shelf and dusting the cover, spine and pages, and we agreed upon a price of five cents per book. I discovered later, however, that Rachel knew something I didn’t. She had already counted my books and knew that there were over 150 fine books to be dusted, netting her a total of nearly $80 for an hour of work!
Work and Wisdom
In the years since I first became Aubrey’s and Aaron’s employer, I have tried to make them more “work wise.” For example, I allowed them to “subcontract” some jobs; they discovered that “many hands make light work” and would occasionally enlist a friend or each other to assist in a job (or even to take it over) for a portion of their pay.
They came to understand the concept of payroll deductions when I encouraged them to let me “withhold” a percentage of their pay for savings and tithe. When they reached an age and level of responsibility at which I felt they could be trusted to do so, I placed them on “salary” to keep the lawn mowed throughout the season.
All this was accomplished at home, and with minimum effort and supervision. I gave the most attention, of course, to explaining a task (and training them to perform it, if necessary); once they began working, however, I set a kitchen timer to mark their time and only checked on them occasionally to offer encouragement or correction as they worked.
There are many things I have yet to teach them about work and wages, of course. I want them to understand the advantages and disadvantages of self-employment, for example. I want them to be able to weigh various proportions of benefits and compensation. I want them to grasp the dangers of debt and the advantages of capital investment and careful record-keeping. Since they have both become good typists, I intend to employ them as office help sometime in the near future.
Aubrey and Aaron have learned many other things over the past several years of working for me, of course, things that are less quantifiable, but even more important than what “piecework” means or how to interview for a job. Things like sticking with a job and seeing it through to completion. Things like the sense of accomplishment one gains from earning one’s own way. Things like the joy that can often be found in working hard at a task. Things like the reward of a job well done.
Such lessons can best—perhaps only—be taught in a child’s first workplace—the home.
Jobs Your Child Can Do
Children of all ages can learn valuable lessons about work and wages. Below are some of the jobs your child can do:
- sweep the driveway
- sort recyclables
- light dusting
- sort toys/closets
- pull weeds
- water the garden/lawn
- rake grass/leaves
- pick garden vegetables
- walk the dog
- dusting and vacuuming
- water houseplants
- clean filters and screens
- clean the garage/shed
- mow the lawn
- wash cars (inside and outside)
- plant flowers and bushes
- run errands
- clean refrigerator
- painting and minor repairs
The above suggestions offer a starting point. Your own household and family routine may suggest more and better ways to make your children workwise.
Bob Hostetler’s 47 books include the award-winning Don’t Check Your Brains at the Door (co-authored with Josh McDowell) and the novel, The Bone Box. He lives near Oxford, Ohio, with his wife, Robin. Their children are now grown and have given them five grandchildren.
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