Eventually almost every youngster reaches the age when his allowance will no longer stretch to cover the cost of the sports equipment, record albums, or junk food he finds essential. When this situation occurs, Mom and Dad usually suggest that Junior earn that new catcher's mitt by outside labor - and another young entrepreneur is born.
When a child enters the job market - on however sporadic a basis - we parents usually react with mixed emotions. We're proud of our child, of course, pleased that she is assuming some responsibility for herself, hopeful that she's now set on a course of diligence, thrift, and stability. But we also realize that new child-rearing questions will arise as a result of the job: At what age should my child start to work? How many hours (and what types of jobs) are appropriate? And how much parental control should be exerted over the situation?
As a mother of five, I feel that every child should have some outside work experience by the time he is 10 or 11. Raking leaves, acting as ''mother's helper'' (though not with full responsibility for toddlers yet), helping to serve and clean up at a church dinner - these episodes have introduced my children to the work-for-hire world and set the stage for their more permanent jobs later. Even better, those small paychecks acted as a spur to their self-respect, teaching them they were valuable, needed, and appreciated.
By junior high or early high school age, most young people are capable of deepening their job commitment, either working more frequently or assuming more demanding positions. Babysitting, newspaper routes, caddying, or cutting lawns all require self-discipline and a certain amount of fortitude. These qualities are essential as they reach 16 and can be regularly hired as clerks, fast-food workers, or theater attendants.
We parents, of course, must oversee these activities. Because we know our children so well, we're in the best position to spot potential trouble spots: Is our timid babysitter just too uncomfortable in strange homes? Has our son neglected his schoolwork because his work schedule is too heavy? Each case must be explored and handled on its own merits by discussing possible alternatives with the child.
But parents should not get involved in the work itself. Getting a caddy out of bed each morning or regularly helping a child deliver newspapers discourages him from taking initiative and, worse, sends a subtle message: ''You can't do it unless I help you.'' Instead, we parents should encourage, applaud from the sidelines, be available for consultation - and let our children profit from their own mistakes.
The job market opens a new door for our youngsters, through which they can gain courage, self-esteem, and pride in accomplishment. These attributes, developed early, can stay with them throughout life, and are gifts no amount of money can ever buy.