HINGHAM, MASS. — Kathy McWhorter started working when she was 13, peddling produce at a fruit stand. Now a minister and mother of two, she thinks it's great that her boys strap on Rollerblades or hop on bikes each afternoon and zoom around this seaside town delivering newspapers. "They're learning a lot about the realities of life," she says.
Andrew Wilkins's parents, on the other hand, discouraged him from getting a job during this school year. Instead, the high-school senior tutors another student twice a week. With hindsight he concedes that, given the demands of sports and homework, "having a job during the school year would have been too much of a distraction."
At dinner tables across the US, it's a question most parents weigh: Should school-age teens hold jobs, and if so, how much work is enough?
It's also a conversation that's intensifying as educators increasingly side with parents who opt to limit jobs - or even prohibit them - during the school year.
More than in other developed countries, in the US donning a McDonald's cap or Blockbuster khakis is a teen rite of passage as universal as driver's ed. Surveys show 4 in 5 American teens hold some kind of job during the school year, and half those who work are manning cash registers and flipping burgers more than 20 hours a week.
Everyone can rattle off the benefits of a job: It can instill a solid work ethic, build self-confidence, and teach teens responsibility, time management, and the value of the dollar - not to mention socking funds away for college.
But even though teen work is a proud American tradition - one that has held steady since the 1970s - many are now arguing that the cost to kids is too high.
Students who work more than 20 hours a week are less likely to get enough sleep and exercise, less likely to go on to higher education, and more likely to use alcohol or drugs, according to a recent report by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine in Washington.
"Time-wise, the No. 1 priority is school when school is in session," says Linda Dunlap, chair of psychology at Marist University in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. She notes that most teens aren't eager to work the Fry-o-lator all their lives and questions whether that activity deserves more time than homework or socializing.
Calls for new child-labor laws
The stir is prompting some to say that it's time for the government to update child-labor laws to reflect today's society. "When the laws were passed, there were no fast-food restaurants," says David Wegman, chairman of the Department of Work Environment at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and head of the study.
At the beginning of the century, a majority of Americans left school for work at 16. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 restricted labor for children 15 and younger and helped transform American teens from workers into students. Today, 90 percent of teens graduate at 18, and about half of those go on to college.
But it used to be that teens worked to help support their families; today, their paychecks go for extras like a new car or trip to Costa Rica.
While the study doesn't recommend specific time limits for 16- and 17-year-olds, Professor Wegman would cap the amount at 20 hours per week, and would also like the government to set limits on how late teens can work at night and on the number of hours they can work on a school day. Some states, such as Maine and Washington, already have similar limits in place.
"Kids are going to have the rest of their lives to work," says Janine Bempechat, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. A job "takes away from students' ability to prepare for the life they will be facing shortly."
Preparing for the 'real world'
But some teens disagree. They believe a job does help prepare them for the "real world," and that they and their parents are better able to plan their schedules than the government could.
College freshman Donald Bierkan has worked year-round since he was 16, and says he hasn't had trouble striking a balance between work and school. The grocery-store chain that he works for in Oviedo, Fla., prohibits anyone under 18 from working more than 26 hours a week.
His friend, high-school senior Daniel Christiansen, puts in 20 to 35 hours a week at a local arcade. While he concedes "it can get kind of tough" keeping up with work and school, Daniel says his boss is good about giving him time off when he needs it. His salary is going toward buying a newer car and paying for college. If teens were forced to cut back on their hours, he says, it might be difficult for some to cover their tuition.
Both Professor Bempechat and Wegman stress that exceptions need to be made for low-income teens who help support their families. But if Bempechat had her druthers, there would be no one under 18 asking, "You want fries with that?" Instead she recommends volunteer work or paid activities like tutoring other students.
That's what Hingham senior Andrew Wilkins does, rather than selling cargo pants at the local Old Navy like his friends do. The National Honor Society student likes the flexibility of tutoring a few hours a week, which easily fits around homework and crew.
For Kathy McWhorter, it all comes down to striking the right balance for her sons.
"It's a complicated life kids have these days," what with school, music, sports, and a job, she says. "I don't want them to be too regimented. This is a nice balance."