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Activities That Pay When There Are No Paying Jobs

It’s June. Your 15- or 16- or 17-year-old has halfheartedly, or even wholeheartedly, looked for a summer job. The competition is fierce. In a weak economy, adults are taking jobs that once were the almost-exclusive territory of the teen set: fast food, landscaping, temp jobs with the local painting contractor or running the rides at the local theme park. What’s a kid to do? He thinks hanging out with friends and playing video games for three months sounds fine. You, however, are not, not, not looking forward to having him sleep until 3:00 in the afternoon and then bury himself in screens until well past midnight. It’s not healthy. It’s not getting him anywhere. It’s going to drive you nuts.

It’s time for a serious talk with your teen. Summertime is an opportunity to explore options for the future and to get a foot on the path to a career. It’s a time to get away from academics and to get some real-world experience. It’s not time to waste on the couch. By September, you both want to look back on the summer months with satisfaction, not resentment.

What’s a teen to do? There are options that will pay off big even if they don’t pay in the form of a paycheck. Volunteering, creating a small business, or traveling can help your teen learn more about himself and gain valuable experiences.

  • Set up Volunteer Work: The same economy that makes it hard to find a paid job makes it easy to find a volunteer one. Why should a kid work for free? Because it helps him learn how to work for an employer. Because it helps her gain self-confidence. Because it introduces him to potential career paths. Because it sets her up for a paid job the next year.

    Last summer, a wise mother I know named Andrea was concerned about just how her 15-year-old daughter Mandy was going to spend her time. Too young for a paid position but too old to be satisfied to be a “camper” yet again at the local recreation department camp, she needed new experiences and new opportunities to stretch her skills. So her mother called the director of a local Scout day camp. Was she open to interviewing Mandy to be a volunteer assistant to the assistant craft counselor? Of course! An extra pair of hands would be a wonderful help for her overstretched staff.

    Andrea explained to her not-too-enthusiastic daughter that doing free work that year would give her a start on a resume so that the next year, when she was 16, she would have a leg up over the competition. Mandy reluctantly agreed to talk with the director and to give it an honest try. Two weeks into the job, she was coming home bubbling over with stories and enthusiasm. The paid staff were generous in their appreciation and gave her opportunities to try new ideas. She loved making puppets and popsicle stick sculptures with the little kids. She found some new friends among other teen volunteers.

    Did it pay off? Sure. Not only did she have a productive summer but the “job” did give her stellar recommendations and a resume that is stronger than those of her peers. This summer she quickly found a job at a crafts store on the basis of that experience.

  • Bring out the entrepreneur in your teen: Twenty years ago, a 13-year-old boy asked me if he could do some yard work for us. He only had a push lawnmower and a rake. The price was right (cheap) and I figured he couldn’t do any worse than I would (and I hate yard work) so why not. He did fine. He did more than fine. In a few weeks, he picked up a half dozen “regulars” in the neighborhood. Within a few years he saved enough from his summer business to buy himself a used riding mower and had a full schedule of clients. He added services like planting shrubs and spring and fall cleanups. By the time he finished high school, he had the experience and the recommendations to land a job with a landscaping company where he steadily advanced. He’s now married and raising a family. His initiative as a boy has grown into a man-sized career.

    Entrepreneurial jobs are available to the self-directed and motivated, no matter what the economy. Lawns need to be mown. Children need to be babysat. Dogs need to be walked. The more ambitious find creative ways to use their talents to market a craft or put on kids’ birthday parties or launch a website design company. These young CEOs learn how to manage money and time and materials, how to present themselves well in public, and how to relate to customers to ensure repeat business. No matter what they do in the future, these are the skills that will help them succeed.

  • Send them on adventures: Kids who get off the couch and out of their comfort zone see new places. Often they discover new talents and interests and find strengths in themselves they didn’t know they had.

    If you are fortunate enough to have a few thousand dollars to spend on your teens’ summer, consider sending them on a teen travel adventure. Search the web to find well-run, established programs that take high schoolers to various locations throughout the world. Some trips focus on an interest, like art or music. Others are a more general introduction to another country and culture. Still others offer the opportunity to do some community service or to be immersed in another language or to help the environment.

    In addition, there are specialized programs that challenge students physically and mentally through trips up mountains, through forests, or on board ship. Some offer leadership training. Others focus on team building. Reading the websites and brochures will make you wish you could go yourself.

    If such trips are beyond your financial reach, think about swapping kids with friends who live in another part of the country. You run “camp” for a couple of weeks in your state. They take a turn later in the summer. Each host family takes responsibility for developing an active itinerary of the sights and experiences available locally and for providing appropriate supervision. Camping in the woods by one family can be swapped for a week in the city by another. Yes, it means planning and supervising an additional teen or two for a couple of weeks. But it also means a couple of weeks off while your son or daughter is visiting elsewhere.

A different kind of summer can make a difference. The key to a successful summer with teens is planning. Whether doing volunteer work, developing a business, or traveling to new places, kids who use time off from school to stretch their minds and skills are kids who are better prepared for the choices they will soon be making about life after high school. It’s not too late to sit down with your teen to talk about how to make this summer one to be proud of and to remember.

Activities That Pay When There Are No Paying Jobs

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Activities That Pay When There Are No Paying Jobs. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.