Your teen has graduated from the lemonade stand and wants to pursue more grown-up employment. Is school-year employment a good idea? Here's the latest research and tips.

Working Teens

After-school employment is a character-building experience and good preparation for life in the adult world. And some extra money would be good for your teen's bank account. Right?

Maybe not.

Until the early 1980s, few studies were done on the effects of teen employment. Research by Laurence Steinberg and Elizabeth Cauffman, of Temple University, raised some important issues. They concluded that teenagers who worked more than 15 hours per week had lower grades and less investment in school. Working long hours was associated with increased "antisocial activity and school misconduct," as well as drug and alcohol use .

The researchers were concerned that teenagers who work a lot spend less time with their parents—fewer sit-down meals, less involvement in family activities, and less reliance on parents.

The Reason Behind the Job

According to Steinberg, parents should first ask their teenagers why they want to work. "There are more interesting things for kids to do than work," he says. Since most teens end up working at a restaurant or store, volunteer work or after-school activities might be a better choice.

The Money Issue

Teenagers used to work to help support the family. But today's adolescent workers, according to Steinberg and Cauffman, "are, overall, primarily middle-income youth who…are working to support their own consumer behavior." If kids want more money than their parents can provide, working is one way to earn it. But parents need to set some ground rules.

Remind your teen that a job requires a time commitment. Point out that he will have less time for fun activities. Have your child weigh these losses against the potential gains. "Kids don't think that far ahead," says Steinberg, so parents may have to do it for them.

Set limits on the number of hours and days that your child can work. Base this on your teen's abilities, academic performance, sleep requirements, and family activities.

"No child should work more than 20 hours per week during the school year," cautions Steinberg, who personally feels better with teens working half that.

"There must be a rule that school comes first," he adds. "A job should be a privilege earned for good performance in school." Your teen shouldn't choose easier courses because of the job. And it should be clear that if his grades slip, then he stops working.

Consider any potential negative impact on the family, advises Steinberg. Will parents be required to provide transportation to and from the workplace? Will a teen no longer babysit for a younger sibling because of a job?

"Family obligations should be more important than money," he suggests.

Parents should "steer their kids toward occupationally relevant work experiences," he adds. "A job is better if it complements what a child is learning in school or supports career exploration."

For example, a teen who is interested in a career working with animals is better served working in a veterinarian's office than in a supermarket.

Premature Affluence

Parents misjudge their children's ability to manage money. Premature affluence is a common tendency among teen workers. "Having a job doesn't necessarily teach teenagers the meaning of money. In fact, it can give them a rather giddy sense of spending," says Steinberg.

"A parent and child need to agree that a certain amount of money will be saved toward college expenses or car insurance, and that purchases over a certain amount must be discussed."

Sleep Deprivation and Work

"Most teens need about nine hours of sleep," says Mary Carskadon, PhD, at Brown University in Rhode Island, and a member of the National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research.

Carskadon's research indicates that 40% of 9th-12th graders work 20 or more hours per week. A teen who works on school nights until 8 pm or 9 pm requires time to wind down before going to sleep.

"They're revved up by their job," she says. "And then homework gets thrown into the mix as well, so teens who get home at 9 pm may not get to bed until midnight."

According to Carskadon's research, teens who work 20 hours or more reported:

  • Less sleep
  • More daytime sleepiness
  • More falling asleep in school
  • More struggles to stay awake in school
  • More oversleeping and lateness for school
  • Increased smoking and alcohol use

Teens who sleep less than the needed hours, Carskadon says, can't think clearly and don't enjoy school. They may even come to resent school.

By the time teens get to their after-school jobs, however, they are awake and alert. If they get positive feedback on the job, they can "get the wrong idea" about what's important.

Safety Concerns

Safety for teens in the workplace, while strictly regulated by the government, should also be monitored by parents. For example, Carskadon warns about before-school jobs, since teens may not be fully awake in the morning.

"The risks and hazards of the workplace are real and, in a youngster who's sleep deprived, they become magnified," she says.

Signs that a teen is sleep deprived can include struggling to get up in the morning or sleeping a long time on the weekends. "The key role of parents," Carskadon says, "is setting limits and enforcing them."

The US Department of Labor suggests that parents do the following:

  • Talk to teens about their jobs. These may include changes in duties, equipment, supervision, and problems.
  • Stay alert for warning signs, such as:
    • Late night hours
    • Unsupervised work
    • Recent employer citations for child labor violations
    • Employee injuries in the workplace.
  • Know that teens under age 18 cannot be asked to perform hazardous jobs, including the use of certain equipment.
  • Meet with employers. Ask about safety and the job your teen has to do.
  • Visit the job site frequently.