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I Made My Slacker Son Get a Summer Volunteer Gig

What happened next surprised us both

Published on: June 17, 2019

Some teens want to make the world a better place. You may know one of these kids, or even have one yourself. They hold bake sales to save the rainforest, volunteer at the homeless shelter or aspire to join the Peace Corps.

This is not about one of those teenagers.

My son Joel is a decent kid. He does his chores without grumbling and has a wicked sense of humor. In an atmosphere of complete chaos (I speak of his bedroom), he is unerringly able to locate his possessions. But my husband and I sometimes ask ourselves why he's so unmotivated.

Child psychologist Dr. Anthony Wolf ("Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?") succinctly describes Joel's main priority — and that of millions of his peers: to do what he wants and avoid what he doesn't. In real life, this translates to lolling around reading car magazines, with frequent breaks for skateboarding and trips to a nearby pizza place.

The summer he was 15, my husband and I signed him up for a three-week stint as a volunteer assistant counselor at his old day camp. Joel was not happy. One chunk of our summer was already scheduled. Now we were stymieing his plan for a significant portion of the remainder, which he had intended to spend sleeping late and cruising the neighborhood on his longboard. He wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of getting up early just to chase kids around all day without pay.

"You mean, I have to get up early and chase little kids around all day, and not get paid for it? What's even the point of that?" he groaned.

The point, we explained, was gaining experience, so he could apply for a paying job the following summer. Perhaps more importantly, he could put it on his college application. Plus, he might be doing some small measure of good.

This did not go over well. There was whining ("But I deserve a break after my good grades!"). There was defiance ("You can't make me!"). There were vague tough-guy pronouncements ("Oh, yeah? You'll see.").

"Listen here, privileged, middle-class white boy," I felt like snapping, after a few days of this. "Kids all over the world have to work way harder than you, just to survive. A reward for those grades? That's called college. Plenty of people never get there. Try thinking about them, for a change."

Sorely tempted as we were, my husband and I refrained from uttering any of that. Joel has heard it all before. And we've been at this long enough to know that a bland smile and a murmured "Mm hm" are far more effective in wearing down teen resistance.

Besides, despite his bluster, Joel can't help knowing that, unlike his parents, he'll need more than decent grades and an earnest essay to get into college. Expectations have changed. Yet despite the myriad activities that gung-ho parents now mandate for their college-bound kids, most teenagers really haven't.

According to Dr. Wolfe, teens, especially boys, overwhelmingly "seek to achieve a state of perfect passive pleasure," which they accomplish by "screening out unpleasant stimuli"  (e.g. parental kvetching). To top it off, "they have no long-term perspective. None."

Not only do I recognize my son in this description, but I see myself at his age. At 15, I had no passion except reading, and only the vaguest notion of what I wanted to do in life. Why isn't that okay for him?

I know why, of course. It's not enough, now, to spend hours tinkering with your remote control car; a kid's got to be on a robotics team. Teens are supposed to be focused on careers, which means college, which means activities that "look good" on an application. Plus, we hoped it would be good for him. And since Joel had expressed no interest in doing anything different, it was the camp volunteer program for him.

To our surprise, Joel's objections subsided as the start date approached. He announced that he would get himself to camp, and he actually set his alarm the night before so he could catch the bus on time. When he got home on the first day, he was not particularly communicative, but I knew better than to pester him with questions.

My first hint that things were going well came a few days later. "My mentor counselor thought it was a big deal that I could identify thimbleberry and oxalis at the park," Joel reported at dinner that night. "She told the supervisor about it." After years of family hikes here in the Pacific Northwest, Joel's familiarity with native plants is unsurprising and hadn’t seemed noteworthy to us. But I could see his pride in having that knowledge recognized —especially by one of the cool college kids who made up the counseling staff.

Despite his grumbling about getting up early, Joel was never late to camp during his three weeks volunteering and didn't complain (much) about being oppressed and exploited by his tyrannical parents.

On the last day of the program, he brought home a large packet of papers. "It's info about getting a letter of recommendation," he told me. "If you want to apply to be a junior counselor next year."

"Think you might want to do that?"

Joel shrugged. "Maybe.That could be cool. I'd make, like, $68 a day. But, you know. Whatever." (Translation: "I'm in!")

I watched as Joel poured peanuts and raisins into a bowl and retreated upstairs to his room. When I peeked in on him, headphones were clamped to his ears, and he was reclining in bed, munching contentedly while perusing the latest issue of Car and Driver. Perfect passivity had been restored.

I smiled. Maybe Joel didn't have a passion in life (yet). Maybe he really would prefer to loll around. Yet despite that typical teenage inclination, my 15-year-old had made his first foray into the world of work. He had been punctual, performed responsibly and his skills had been recognized. He had done well.

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