Kids willing to work without pay can still see big rewards, namely the development of important new skills. "Even something as simple as watching children at church or a day camp a few hours a week will make it easier to find paying work next year," says Marie Schwartz, president and founder of TeenLife Media, Cambridge, Massachusetts. "In an interview, she'll be able to say, 'Yes, I do have experience with kids.'" While working for free may not be what your teen had in mind, research shows that kids who volunteer have a higher sense of self-worth than those who don't and are more likely to say they'll finish college, boosting future earning power. Steer your teen toward causes she's already enthusiastic about—kids, animals, or the environment, for example. And have her check out dosomething.org, which offers small grants to fund great volunteer ideas applicants come up with on their own.
Volunteer...By Hitting the Road
Teens who are encouraged to move outside their comfort zone—as in, away from Mom and Dad—can learn life lessons beyond the ones acquired on the job. Besides giving back to local communities, volunteer trips can be a great way to expand your child's worldview and help her feel more mature. Travel and service programs in the U.S. and abroad for high school students are gaining in popularity, and many are open to kids as young as 14.
Be sure to do your research first, though. Trips can get pricey because you may be asked to pay a fee in addition to supervision, travel, meals, and lodging expenses. "And while they may provide a wonderful experience, many are glorified vacations and won't help a teen demonstrate that they can make a meaningful impact," says Schwartz. She recommends looking for programs that run long enough—several weeks or more in one location—that your child has time to learn demonstrable skills and build a solid relationship with the adult in charge. (The adult can then become a reference.) Idealist.org is a good place to start. If your child is receptive, don't overlook religious groups: Adventures.org can help you track down suitable mission excursions, and werepair.org offers cool service trips for Jewish teens. There's no need to use formal programs, either: If you've got family in New Orleans, for example, your teen can set up an extended visit and find plenty of volunteer opportunities in that area.
Internships are usually associated with college students, who do unpaid work to gain critical on-the-job experience. But younger teens can also be interns. Ask your kid to name a few "dream jobs," then have him approach related businesses about helping out for free. "Offering to work for a frame shop, for example, for little or no money for a few weeks can give a kid a chance to learn skills and impress the owner," says Schwartz. "When there's an opening, his chances of getting a call are much better either at that store, or one like it." Another major perk: Your child will now have a reference who can vouch for him to potential employers.
Work for Mom or Dad
Small-business owners already know there can be tax perks to hiring your teen: You won't have to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes on her earnings until she turns 18, and her salary is a legitimate business expense for you according to current Internal Revenue Service guidelines. (Go to irs.gov/businesses/small.) But all parents are potential employers. Is there a big project your teen can handle? Power washing the house? Painting a deck? Reorganizing the basement? Rather than paying him an hourly rate, think about setting an agreement like any you'd make with an outside company—many contractors, for instance, get a third of the fee to start, a third midway through, and a third on completion. Establishing a payment schedule, finalizing a timeline, and negotiating a project fee may make your teen feel more invested in seeing the job through and can minimize misunderstandings and the drama they create. (If you spell out all the terms of your agreement carefully in writing, you're better covered against disputes). And don't limit yourself to cash payment. If money is tight, your teen can work for extra privileges—skipping some other chores, or banking a later curfew or more car access, for example.
Start a Small Business
Whether it's launching a dog-walking business or selling paintings on Etsy.com, entrepreneurial kids can make at least some money and build experiences they can use on future applications. Help kids identify a marketable product or need in the neighborhood and set a price for services. Then think of simple, inexpensive ways to advertise, like handing out flyers and posting signs in local stores. Attracting followers on Twitter or a Facebook fan page might make sense for some start-ups, but direct your teen to resources geared toward adults, too. "Kids will probably just find other teens on Facebook and Twitter," says Schwartz. "Push them to try new ways of networking—LinkedIn.com is more professional and reaches parents who are often the ‘buyers’ of services, such as tutoring. Or help them find their target market, such as a mother's group, for example." The U.S. Small Business Administration has more ideas at sba.gov/teens. Note: Every parent's comfort level with having kids work for strangers is different. But especially with younger teens, you may want to call or meet briefly with potential employers you don't know or have some connection to (friend of a friend, say). "A parent should always accompany a student to an interview for a job in someone's home," says Schwartz.
Apply for College Scholarships
This could pay off far more than any summer job: There are 2.4 million scholarships out there, worth a total of more than $14 billion, according to U.S. News & World Report. Even though the most likely source of aid will be the college your child attends—something she probably won't be know until senior year—she can still spend a couple days a week sleuthing out and applying now. Among the best starting places: The College Board (www.collegeboard.com), FinAid! The SmartStudent Guide to Financial Aid (www.finaid.org), FastWeb (www.fastweb.com), or the Sallie Mae's College Answer Scholarship Search (www.collegeanswer.com).
Write That College Essay
Kids going into their senior year already know they should be narrowing down the list of colleges they'll apply to, but summer downtime is ideal for working on the college essay—a short but critical part of some applications, and one that can become more challenging to complete once homework, projects, and extracurriculars start up again during the school year. Remind your kid that this isn't busy work: Payscale.com reports that the more elite the college, the higher the starting salary your teen can earn after graduating. The new Common Application (www.commonapp.org), which is accepted at 418 schools, will be available on August 1, and College Board (www.collegeboard.com) has examples and tips for writing effective essays.
Polish a Portfolio
For some kids, an art, design, or photography portfolio may eventually be part of a college application. Requirements vary widely, but many schools ask for at least 10 pieces of work. Before your teen picks up his camera or paintbrush to start a new project, check out individual colleges for guidelines, and browse through sites like portfolioseries.com and artschools.com to get ideas. As with the essay, the better the student's work, the more colleges are likely to accept her. Encourage your teen to treat portfolio building like a real job. You might even want to set up a special "office" in the house to emphasize the work's importance and to help her focus.
Originally published on FamilyCircle.com, May 2010.