A Child Laborer: 9 Jobs I Had Before the Age of 18

baby-on-moneyThese are jobs I don’t put on my CV.

  • Ages 6-8 or so: Seller of lemonade and salamanders. The lemonade we mixed up in the kitchen, just like all the other kids with lemonade stands. The salamanders we caught in the woods out back and placed in homemade stapled envelopes padded out with moistened moss. Only ever got one taker on the salamanders – 25 cents from my sister.
  • Age 9: Picker of peas at local farm. A farm in Concord, NH, hired young kids to fill massive baskets of peas under the baking July sun for 50 cents a bushel. Do you know how long it takes to pick a bushel of peas? Especially when you’re eating roughly 1/4 of your take? I don’t know either, but it’s a lot less time than it takes to get a really bad sunburn on your neck and ears. I lasted maybe 5 days.
  • Age 10: Waiter for hire. A few years ago I was rummaging through my parents’ attic and came across one of the many hand-printed 3X5 cards I’d made and distributed around the neighborhood advertising my services as a waiter at dinner parties. I even had a much-too-large blue blazer handed down from an older brother to make me look butlerish. Never got much work.
  • Age 12: Seller of home-grown gladiolis. My dad planted several rows of gladiolis in the garden with the understanding that I would sell them in the summer when they bloomed. Not much return on investment, but a lot of fun anyway.
  • Age 13: Snow-blower of driveways. This was my first real success. At US $10/driveway I’d get up at crack of dawn when snow had fallen and and clear 4 driveways before school started. $40 – in 1983 – for a boy my age meant that I was flush with cash that I kept in a roll like a drug dealer and have no recollection of what I spent it on.
  • Age 14, summer: Clerk in a pet store. I’d bike to the store in the morning, work all day selling fish, birds, lizards and snakes to people who would probably ultimately kill then through ignorance, then go fishing in the evening. Not the best summer job, but not too bad.
  • Ages 15-17, summers: Tout and galley slave on a whale-watching boat. At 15 my parents let me rent a room from an Emergency Room doctor who worked the graveyard shift, and for the first time I was essentially on my own. At 15. I appreciated the independence, but in hindsight I have no idea what my parents were thinking. Most days I sat at a picnic table signing people up for whale watches, but 2 days a week I worked the galley, serving food. In my slack time – and lounging about a picnic table taking reservations in a tourist town you have a lot of slack time – I wooed the summer girls. A few I even took back to my bachelor pad.
  • Age 16, winter: Clerk at a local clothing store after school. School started at 7:15 and ended at 2:15, ridiculous hours for teenagers who tend to need to sleep late, but that’s the way our American school system works. I learned how to fold clothes neatly, work a cash register, and not much else.
  • Age 17, winter: Dishwasher and pot scourer at local hospital. Yes, it was a pretty crappy job, but it paid $5.85/hour, which at the time was a generous wage. I worked evenings and weekends, racking up nearly 40 hours/week in addition to full-time school. Don’t know how I did it, really.

After that I held the usual bus-boy, wait-staff jobs until I landed a position, at age 19,  at a fine-dining restaurant and started my seven-year stint in kitchens, rocketing up from salad boy to sous chef to executive chef by age 23, when I wasn’t really ready for the responsibility and where they threw ungodly amounts of money my way.

I could go on about my varied and spotted career, but point is, I started doing paid work at 9 years old. (Many kids when I was growing up had paper routes – rather Rockwellian and all that but the fact is very young kids were working hard slinging papers in all weather at a very early hour. I suppose it saved newspapers from having to provide health benefits and pensions.) I have somewhat mixed emotions about this. I loved my jobs. I made a bit of money, there was an entrepreneurial spirit about the whole thing, and it taught me the value of hard work.

In Japan many of my students were “salarymen” who had never held a job outside of their current positions. In many ways I felt sorry for them. They had missed out on a whole world of experience that comes from the odd and varied jobs that many American kids have growing up.

On the other hand, when I was in high school I worked a nearly full-time job in addition to my studies, and was frequently absolutely exhausted when I got to school in the morning. I often slept through Mr. McCormick’s first period history lessons, but he didn’t seem to care. (Not the sign of a great teacher – and since I’ve been a teacher as well as a seller of salamanders, I know a little bit about this.)

Last week I received a comment from the mother of a Texas girl who was raising money, partly by selling lemonade, to help a young man who’d been randomly shot in a drive-by shooting. That kind of altruism is obviously commendable and touching and all too rare.

I guess in the last analysis I see it this way: If a kid wants to work to make money, then he or she absolutely should, and if it’s an original and innovative business concept all the better. My only concern is that it might play into the current obsession with being a billionaire by the age of 20. And it must be remembered that in wealthy countries kids (for the most part) have the luxury of work being optional; in large swathes of the world it’s a tragic necessity or worse, a system of institutionalized forced labor.

But working voluntarily in order to buy or achieve what you want is a hell of a lot better than feeling that you deserve, that you’re somehow entitled to the latest tidbit of technology simply because you exist. So tomorrow at breakfast I’m telling my kids that it’s time they started working for their toast and eggs.

Did you have an interesting childhood job? A tremendous (or terrible) summer position? Please share your experience with all of us!

18 thoughts on “A Child Laborer: 9 Jobs I Had Before the Age of 18

  1. My dad had thing about his lawn and every year he would pay us to pull the dandelions from the yard. To get the .005 (that’s 1/2 cent) for each dandelion, you had to get the roots or he wouldn’t count it.
    I was the only sucker who fell for it, but guess who was crying when we went to the grocery store and I bought myself a disgusting amount of candy only an 8 year old can purchase with a clear conscious. High fructose corn syrup never tasted better.

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  2. From age 13 to about 21, I worked weekends at a shop that sold furniture, faux -flower arrangements, potpourri, candles and all those things ladies like to buy. Most of my co-workers were old enough to be grandparents and they treated me like their own. Just last month the store finally closed, since the owner is to frail too continue running it. It’s sad, since I feel as though I grew up while I worked there. Today the norm is probably not that a store owner would send a kid to the bank with a couple thousand bucks in a brown paper bag to make a bank deposit. But for me, back then, it was. Many important lessons learned about trust and hard work.

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    • You feel as though you grew up while you were working there because you did – in many ways. Sounds like a lovely environment. In my hometown my girlfriend worked at a t-shirt shop in the summers, and each night the owner would pool together the take from their four stores and put it – exactly – in a brown paper bag, and walk home. About $20,000 in a paper bag. Old woman. Walking. You can tell I didn’t grow up in Detroit.
      By the way, any more development on your summer excursion to Maine?

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  3. I recently posted about my summers as a lifeguard, where we did actually save lives, but mainly tried to find ways to have a lot of fun. One summer in high school (I grew up in Florida), I built storm shutters. You know those diagonal louvers on shutters and blinds? Yeah, I screwed those together for 8.5 hours/day. The were quite heavy and it was a repetitious, boring job. Occasionally, I would go out and install them at nice homes. In July. In Florida. Holding hot aluminum. Anyway, I’m glad I did it. I might have hated it at the time, but I do look back and value the physical labor involved.

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    • Sounds tough, but I know exactly what you mean about the satisfaction of physical labor. One of my favorite part time jobs during university was as a driver’s helper for UPS, delivering packages during the pre-Christmas rush. It was physically demanding work (One year I was a bike deliverer – I’d go to a drop-off garage in the morning, fill a wagon with packages, and bike around delivering them, shuttling back and forth between the garage and distant neighborhoods all day long. In December in Maine, mind you.) and I’d get home at the end of the day just about shattered, but it still felt really good. And it paid great. Thanks for sharing your story!

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  4. I remember as a kid having three different paper routes that I had to do every day but Sunday to earn my school lunch money, while my dad was out of work. On Sunday mornings my dad passed the papers, because they had to be delivered at too early a time in the morning for my sister and I to legally be out passing them. (they got dropped off at 3 and had to be delivered no later than 7 or they would dock your pay) Looking back now it seems like a lot of work for only $72 a month, but we did it when we didn’t have a whole lot of other options at the time.

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    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Aurora. That, in a word, sucks. Clearly there’s a difference between kids working for a little extra spending money and working because the family desperately needs the income. Sorry you had to face such a harsh reality at such a young age. And it seems pretty ridiculous to give a kid a paper route then demand that the papers be delivered at an hour when it’s ILLEGAL for kids to be working. I hope everything worked out okay for your family.

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  5. What a great idea for a post! I started working very young too, but as you say that was pretty normal in the 1970’s and 80’s here in the US. I did the typical babysitting jobs but also picked cherries in my grandparents orchard to sell from a folding table in their driveway. I dusted antique shops, taught pre-ballet classes on the weekends, and worked a lot of retail in high school. I think first jobs teach kids all sorts of useful lessons.
    Lisa

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