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Work It

Teaching children about jobs and earning a living

By Eileen Gilligan

I’ll never forget what my nephew said about jobs when he was 5 years old. He was on his way up the stairs to bed and for some reason I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I want to be a mailman” (like his dad), he answered with a big smile.“That’s nice. How ’bout a lawyer?” (like his mother—my sister), I asked. He giggled at me as if I had suggested we play in the snow in our bathing suits. “Eileen, everyone knows only girls can be lawyers,” he replied. 

He clearly knew what his parents did, although he might not have understood about court, judges and depositions at that moment.

toddler at laptop

© Ron Chapple Studios | Dreamstime.com

There’s a nice, concrete quality to delivering mail (or driving a bus or performing another self-evident job). But when parents head off each day to an unknown place to render some unimaginable service, the task of explaining work to kids can be a little harder. During summer vacation, parents might find themselves bringing their children to work when they’re at a loss to find child care. But this circumstance doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Gretchen Starr of Lysander has taken one or more of her three assistants to work with her on a weekend from time to time. She works for Healthcare Information Network in Liverpool, which holds seminars for long-term care health professionals. The flexibility of her part-time job allows her to catch up on work on the weekend. 

“I think they get an idea of what I do somewhat and they get to see the atmosphere there. It’s a lot of administrative work there, but they get to do a lot of filing and helping with the mailers that I send out,” Starr explains. “They like having their tasks.”

And Rachel, 13, Kevin, 9, and Allison, 4, “absolutely love shredding,” which she does not, Starr adds.

Patrick Hummel of Baldwinsville says his three daughters understand his business from “eating there and eating in other restaurants.” He’s one of the owners of Nothing But Noodles, which opened last year in the Marshall’s Plaza on Erie Boulevard in DeWitt. “They’ve been there a few times. They talk about it a lot,” he says.

“I think any kid wants to do what Mom or Dad does at work once in a while,” he adds. His daughters “play restaurant at home a lot with the different little toys here.”

He looks forward to giving them a more detailed tour of the restaurant and the business when they get older. He wouldn’t want them to get too close to the big-flame wok burners in the kitchen, for instance. They offer advice now anyway: “My daughters are like, ‘You should have this, you should have that.’” 

Talking with children about work is another aspect of a parent’s job, Hummel says. “I think it’s all part of the important things of helping your kids learn about business and the world and what goes on behind the scenes.” 

I think I introduced the idea of work to my kids very early on, mostly because I refer to employees in stores and elsewhere as “workers.” I want to convey the notion that all these people have jobs and they earn money for them—they’re not just there to serve us because we deserve it. I want my children to respect all workers and to realize that they, too, might prefer to be strolling the mall with their children or having someone serve them some french fries. Other workers are not just here because we’re the center of the universe. By extension, my children should expect to join the work force, too, when they’re old enough.

My daughter’s career aspirations have traveled an interesting path. First, she really wanted to be a taxi driver. Our kids love taxi rides in big cities! Then she moved on to cashier at Wegmans. Working the cash register looked so cool. 

But once she entered elementary school, she shifted her sights to being a teacher. She asked for markers and a white board in her room so she could play school. She lines up her stuffed animals to ask and answer questions. She loves when I pretend to be a student and shout out and interrupt the teacher. This goal has stuck from first grade into second. Since both her parents are college professors, it may stick a bit longer.

Due to plenty of days off from school or preschool over the years, our kids have visited many of our classes at Syracuse University and SUNY Oswego. They know when they drive to Oswego with me, we stop at a doughnut shop and get doughnut holes for them to distribute to my students. They hope it’s quiz day, so they can hand out tests, too.

Back in my office, Mac and Annie collect pencils from everyone so they can sharpen them in the electric pencil sharpener. They deliver mail and get to figure out which folks have candy dishes on their desks. 

Since my mother was a college secretary, I, too, grew up on a campus. I loved feeling grown up when I was old enough to roam the bookstore by myself, or when the secretaries would let me alphabetize a pile of papers. It helped, too, when I came home after school to an empty house to be able to picture where my mother was when I called her.

My mother made sure my sisters, brother and I all knew how to type (and two of us use shorthand to this day). One sister and I worked as temporary secretaries during college breaks for years.

My son has aspirations to be a movie director, although that’s recently shifted to actor and screenwriter. And when he stays up late on a Friday with me to watch The King and I or South Pacific, I don’t mind the company at all. Hanging out with my son is nice work if you can get it.

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York