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  • Christine Shuck

We Repeat What We Know

Since my teen was eight or nine, they have received a monthly allowance. We always called it profit sharing. Semantics aside, it was a way for them to have a little bit of money to spend on whatever they wanted. Usually that ends up being Taki's and other junk food.


Over the years, the amount has grown. Usually at a rate of an extra $5 per month every birthday. Currently, it hovers at $40 per month. Around a year ago, I told Alex, "When you turn sixteen, no more profit sharing, it will be time to get a job."


They nodded and didn't say much. But they certainly did not look happy about it.


Today is the first day of 10th grade, and in less than one month, Alex will be sixteen. For the last few months, as I thought ahead to their 16th birthday, and the edict I had issued, I found myself questioning it. A lot.


Why did Alex need a job? Well, to learn a basic survival skill. Could they take direction? Work hard? Could they survive working for someone who honestly didn't particularly care if they weren't feeling well, or were tired, or really just needed a break? Holding down a job is a life skill that most everyone needs to have.


What was more important? School? Or holding down a job? Well, both. But this year, this 10th grade year, is especially important in terms of education. This is the year in which Alex's grades could qualify them for Early College Academy, where they could work in their 11th and 12th grade years and achieve both a high school diploma and an Associate's of Arts at the local community college for free. The thing that took me, a single mother, eleven years of on and off again schooling to achieve (and certainly not for free), Alex could have accomplished by the age of 18. In an age of rising college costs and exorbitant student loans, wasn't that more important than a job?


It's important to learn about earning money. Okay. Sure. But does it have to be this way? I have included my teen in money talks since, well, since before they were a teen. I likely share far too many details of the household financials, but it is enough that my teen is already a savvy shopper (picks generic over name brand) and I regularly involve them in budget talks and more. Occasionally, when in a pinch, I've asked Alex to clean one of our short-term rentals. Having learned how from me, they do an excellent job. I'm pretty picky, and honestly, I've been impressed with their level of detail.


Where was this edict coming from, anyway? As I answered the first two questions, I found myself wondering why I had been so deadset on Alex getting a job at sixteen. And the only answer I could come up with was well that's what teens are supposed to do. And suddenly I found myself questioning every bit of it. Yes, it was important that my teenager learn to be a capable functioning adult. Someone who, yes, could hold down a job. But did that mean the obligatory work at fast food and get screamed at by an older pimply-faced teen on a power trip? Was this part of the rite of passage? Did they have to come home stinking of sweat and grease and feet aching from standing for hours on end? Would this somehow properly educate my teen on the brutal realities of life and the necessity of a higher education? And suddenly, I found myself remembering when I was sixteen and living with my dad. We had moved from San Francisco, where I attended a small private high school to Pacifica, a 2+ hour commute in each direction on public transportation to school each weekday.


"You're sixteen," my dad said, "you need to get a job."


At that point, I was waking up at 4:30-5:00 in the morning, just to get to school on time. By the time I returned, it was at least 5pm or later. That was if I didn't spend any time with my friends, something he frowned on, since he didn't like them. So I had zero social life, a commute of 4+ hours per day, school for another 7 hours a day, and I was also supposed to find a job. With no car. In the middle of...Pacifica? A tiny little town on the coast?


Yesterday, as we spent the day driving around, getting Alex's driver's permit (finally), shopping, errands and dental appointments done, I brought it up. I told her I was questioning it all, and realizing I had been repeating words that weren't my thoughts, weren't my ideas. I was parroting the words of my dad, who might have been parroting the words of his dad, for all I knew. And even if he hadn't, he had been completely out of touch with reality when dealing with the teenage me. I already had a commute and school eating up 11-12 hours of my day and zero social life, how in the world would having a job on top of that helped me? And here I was, 36 years later, repeating his words and actions.


Alex's situation is far from the same as mine. They don't have a 4+ hour commute on public transportation. They don't have the same poor relationship I had with my parents. They know they can come to me, for a listening ear, for emotional support, for affection, and more. More importantly, they do come to me for all of those things. We have built a relationship of mutual respect and honesty wherever possible.


"What's most important to you right now?" I asked. "The independence of earning your own money? Or maintaining your grades?"


Alex was silent for a moment. "My grades, honestly. Because if I'm going to go to pharmacy school, I need to get the best grades possible."


"I can't buy you a car. And I can't pay for college." I told my teen. "But I can make sure you have everything you need - clothing, supplies, and a small monthly amount of spending money - in return, I expect you to maintain your excellent grades. As long as you have direction, and focus, you have a home provided here while you go to high school and beyond."


Alex nodded. "I can do that."


"And if you ever have trouble in school. You know that you have your teachers, us, and your school counselor to help. We are all here for you. You know that, right? We all want the best for you."


It felt so good to tell my child I was changing my mind. That I wouldn't stop paying them their monthly $40. It felt even better to recognize that I had been repeating what I knew, and that I could and should break that cycle. I was proud of myself for recognizing the flaw and stopping it before it continued.


I've had so many of these "a-ha" moments while raising my kids. Learning to explain "why" instead of saying "because I said so" or offering limited choices instead of simply telling a child "it's my way or the highway." Still, the patterns we learn, they are insidious. They last far longer and are entrenched far deeper into our psyches and daily lives than we care to acknowledge. When we recognize them, when we call them out and question them, and when we instead break our own paths - create our own acceptable futures - that's when we win at the game of life.

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