Teens often seem to want the newest, and often most expensive, electronics, brand name clothes, and shoes. As an 80s-era teenager, my lust for Guess jeans and concert tickets quickly surpassed my sporadic babysitting earnings. My parents told me to find a job and I did, with my first job at a sub shop and then for many years at a Chi-Chi’s restaurant.
My high school working hours were full-time in the summer and included a few weekly shifts during the school year. The job was waiting for me on my winter and summer breaks home from college; it covered many school-year expenses.
I think about this work experience now, at a time when many parents claim their kids are too busy with sports and extracurricular activities to do even simple chores, much less work.
That’s a mistake.
I don’t want to diminish what it is to be on a team, explore interests or have a hobby. Certainly school and homework take up a great deal of time. But think about it. Our teens can benefit from a wide variety of experiences, and few are more practical and long-lasting than what they learn on a first job. If the school year really is too full, there’s always summer.
I’ve talked to many people who still speak fondly of their time as camp counselors, caddies and landscapers. For me, the benefits of working in a restaurant went beyond learning how to make Chi-Chi’s famous fried ice cream. It even went beyond the paycheck (though for some teens, that paycheck helps put food on their families’ tables; that experience would likely produce a very different story on teen work).
Here are ten of the takeaways of working at a first job for a teen:
1. There is Joy in Work.
My restaurant smelled of nachos and fajitas (or as we called them, Chajitas), which I could purchase at half-price. My colleagues were mostly young and fun. I loved having a paycheck. During a busy shift, the time flew by. Work rocked.
2. There is Also Misery.
Standing on your feet for seven hours straight can be pretty tiring. It’s hard not to tell rude customers where to go. Missing a fun outing because you had to work? Ugh. Slow shifts were boring and meant fewer tips. Work stunk. (But I needed the paycheck. And usually the next shift was better.)
3. The Consequences Are Real.
As staff we quickly learned that showing up on time and doing a solid job led to better hours and stations. Those who were consistently late or skipped work got the worst shifts—or were fired. Performance mattered; money was on the line.
4. Good Bosses Are Key.
At Chi-Chi’s, unpaid bills were the server’s responsibility. I’ll never forget the times my customers tried to run out on a bill. The first time we chased down a group in the parking lot. The second time the runners got away. My manager didn’t make me pay. His actions restored some of my faith in humanity. In return, I filled in whenever he asked. A good boss who has your back? Huge.
5. There’s No Place for Parents at Work.
Not all my managers were that good; some played favorites, slacked off or were easily overwhelmed. Guess who intervened for me when I had a problem? No one. I learned to advocate for myself, handle annoying customers and deal with a rude staff member. It wasn’t easy—but it was empowering.
6. Everyone on the Team Matters.
All of us—the dishwashers, the line cooks, the wait staff, cleaning crew, the managers—were part of a well-oiled machine at the restaurant. For me to do my job right and get tipped, I needed the other parts to work. They usually did. We felt it when they didn’t. Also: the nicer we were to each other, the better it went. Kindness mattered.
7. There Will Be Moments of Insight.
I remember thinking some of my older co-workers weren’t all that fun, until I heard one soothing a child to sleep over the break room phone and realized fun was the last thing on her mind. When managers gave the single mom the best station (the booths and the six-top), no one complained. The paycheck I spent on concert tickets was her rent check. That was sobering. Empathy mattered too.
8. Assumptions May Prove Wrong.
I assumed the fancier the customer, the better the tipper. Not so. The most generous customers weren’t those with the nicest clothes or bags. The people who tipped the best were those who appreciated good service; they came in all ages, races and manners of dress. The one thing many had in common? My best tippers were often current or past service workers themselves. They understood how hard the work was.
9. You’ll Learn Ways to Work Around Your Weaknesses.
I multi-tasked with the best of them, joked with my customers and recited the welcome to Chi-Chi’s spiel like a pro. What I couldn’t do was carry heavy trays of food. I occasionally dropped them on my tables, in fact. The solution? I found the food runner (the staff whose only job was to carry trays of food out to a packed restaurant), and let him/her know I’d be tipping out well. I still came out ahead, as my customer’s dry-cleaning bills cost more than a good tip-out.
10. Don’t Spend It All at Once.
I learned to budget my time when I worked in high school, studying when I wasn’t on a shift. As a college student, I came back to my Chi-Chi’s job every summer and winter break, waiting tables nights and weekends while working office jobs in the day. I made what felt like a lot of money in the summer and then budgeted my savings to cover school-year expenses. Work was my first attempt at Budgeting 101; I’m glad I passed.
I ended things with Chi-Chi’s the summer after college graduation, when I flew by myself to Europe and spent the year traveling and working, first as a bartender in Scotland and then as a nanny in France. The independence and experience I gained from working as a teenager helped make that year possible.
My oldest, a high school freshman, is experiencing the first phase of work: babysitting, refereeing and serving as a counselor-in-training this summer.
As I watch her, I know this much is true about working teens: there will be complaints, but there’s also a pride of ownership that comes with using their own money, managing their own workplace challenges and learning some of the lessons that only a day on the job can teach.