This Labor Day, Let's Bring Back Child Labor | Opinion

It was time for our family beach trip, one I take with my wife and daughter every summer. On a beautiful morning a few summers back, we packed the family car and headed from our home in Oxford, Mississippi, to Florida's Gulf Coast for a week of fun and sun. Some call it the Redneck Riviera. This New Jersey transplant calls it paradise.

We hit the road at 6 a.m., and by 10 a.m. we were getting hungry and stopped at a Subway shop in a small town somewhere in rural Alabama. We were greeted by an immigrant couple in their mid-30s and their daughter, who appeared to be in her early teens.

While we were thinking about what to order, the young girl was busily making trip after trip from a prep area in the back of the family's franchise to the counter, filling each bin with produce. First tomatoes, then lettuce, olives and jalapeño peppers. Then she removed her plastic gloves and cheerfully switched roles. The prep girl was now the order taker and sandwich dresser.

"What would you like on your sandwiches?" she asked us.

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The girl's parents, without realizing it, were teaching their daughter that listening to customers and serving them is a good thing. Giving them the sandwich they want, and not the sandwich the store wants them to have, is good business.

The girl then switched roles again, from sandwich dresser to cashier.

"Would you like some chips and a drink with that?" she asked. I said yes. Clearly, her parents had also taught her the art of the upsell. And she was not yet a teenager!

The girl rang up our order, took our cash, gave us our change and did it cheerfully. She was having a good time. There was no attitude, no sense that she was missing out on anything.

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Indeed, she was learning some important life lessons. Lessons that are not being taught in our nation's schools. And not being taught in far too many American homes. Lessons like these:

  • Serving a good fresh product at a fair price can lead to a profit, if you watch your expenses.
  • Customers like choices, and they like good service.
  • Kids can actually contribute to the GFP—the gross family product.
  • Work is good. And free markets work.

It's sad to say, but that girl in the Subway shop knows more about what makes a small business hum than most college professors and politicians.

She was also learning important life lessons from her work that build something few people talk about these days: character. She was learning that money doesn't grow on trees. That to have money, one must work. One must earn it. She was learning that her parents are not an ATM, and that you have to sell a whole lot of Subway sandwiches to pay for an iPhone, let alone a car.

The couple who own that Subway shop should get a parenting award because they dared to do something that many modern parents refuse to do: expose their kids to the exigencies and realities of life. Which includes work.

They heaped adult responsibility on their daughter, and she ate it up. They gave her duties and responsibilities, and she owned them. They permitted her to be a part of the family business, and she was grateful.

Many parents I know do the opposite. Instead of making their kids work for what they want, they give them stuff. And ask for nothing in return.

These are the same coddling parents who try to protect their children from all of life's problems. Skinned knees? Bring out the kneepads. A bad bump at the playground? Rubberize the place. A bad grade from the teacher? Let's give everyone a gold star. Or worse, let's appeal that bad grade.

In their endless desire to raise their children's self-esteem, those parents are creating entitled kids and hurting their chances of succeeding in an ever more competitive work force.

That girl in the Subway shop has real self-esteem. The kind you only get by earning it.

The kids who get what they want have the look of bored adults by the time they reach 18. They are insufferable before they've ever really suffered. Indeed, that's why they are insufferable. They get everything they want, and yet nothing seems to satisfy them.

I was reading the Ole Miss newspaper the other day (Oxford is home to the state school), and there was an ad for what appeared to be a beautiful retirement condo complex. Upon closer inspection, I learned it was for students.

The complex was called "The Retreat." As if college kids need a "retreat" from their tough grind of 15 hours of classes a week.

Then came the list of amenities: "Fitness center. Movie theater. Sand volleyball court. Golf simulator. Firepit. Swimming pool. Cabanas. Tanning domes."

Is this a college dorm parents are paying for? Or Club Med?

This is the culture war no one is talking about in America: the battle between parents with common sense who want to raise responsible, grateful kids and parents who give their kids what they want, when they want it.

Time after time in this bucolic town, my wife and I see college students walk out of gyms or restaurants and step into a Range Rover or Mercedes-Benz. We always do a double take. "What the heck?" we say to ourselves. Because it shocks us to see young people casually strut into $70,000 vehicles and act as if those cars are theirs.

We make a very good living, and we don't own cars like that.

I can't tell you the number of times we've been at a fancy steakhouse in town, and next to us is a group of college kids having a good time. When the bill arrives, out comes mom and dad's credit card.

I didn't take a girl to a fancy restaurant until I was 28. Until then, my dates got the Denny's special.

Cash register
Instead of making their kids work for what they want, too many parents they give them stuff—and ask for nothing in return, Lee Habeeb argues. PhonlamaiPhoto

And when I talk to these students and ask them if they have a job, they look at me like I'd just sprung a second head. "Are you kidding me?" is the look I get. They don't bother to respond verbally.

And our little girl, Reagan, sees all of this. She sees the stuff other kids have, and she'll soon be asking us why we don't give her the stuff those other parents give their kids.

We'll tell Reagan that if she wants that stuff, she'll have to work to get it. That we'll help, but she has to have some skin in the game so that she'll appreciate what she gets.

She won't like it. What kid does? But this I know: If more parents who think this way stick to our guns, we can beat back those crazy parents who give their kids everything.

Our rebuttal to this coddling culture of entitlement should include a list of old-school notions our parents taught us. Here are a few:

  • Do your part. Work hard. And help pay your own way.
  • You'll face rejection. Get over it. In fact, develop an appetite for it.
  • You'll bump into obstacles. Work through them.
  • You'll be on the wrong side of real unfairness. Choose to be a victor, not a victim. It's really a choice.
  • You'll fail. Learn from it.
  • Whatever you do, don't complain. No one cares.
  • The world doesn't revolve around you and your sensibilities.
  • Work has moral significance. It creates value in the world. It gives life meaning. Without work, life and community are unimaginable.

So on this Labor Day, let's extol the virtues of work and working children. Not the sweatshop version, but the kind we all experienced when we were kids: the paper route, the lawn-mowing service or the job at McDonald's or 7-Eleven.

On this Labor Day, let's all commit—we parents who want to raise grateful kids—to bring back child labor.

Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network and host of Our American Stories. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

This Labor Day, Let's Bring Back Child Labor | Opinion | Opinion