Working with Teens

At different points over the past few years, several friends have asked about (or expressed frustration with) hiring teens or working with teens in various dimensions.  In this post, I hope to offer Creative Solutions for adults who want to work more effectively with teens. I hope to offer suggestions in a way that respects the growing, developing teen, so please read these less as “solutions for teens” and more like helping adults with their “stance” or “approach” to the situation.

Let me explain: I spent nine years teaching high school; the last five of those years were spent directing a high school service learning program and teaching morality to 16 year old girls (and I loved it!).  My own kids are 7 1/2 and 6; I offer these insights more as an educator than as a parent.

It Takes A Village

Think of yourself more as an educator working with a student than as an adult that wants to hire an employee; an apprentice, if you will.  That kid’s parents and (paid professional) teachers are doing the best they can.  The rest of us need to help.  It takes a village to raise a child?  It takes a village to teach teens how to be the kind of responsible, proactive workers we would all like to hire.

Teens are still learning and growing.  When you hire them for a job, understand that you are teaching them how to be an employee.  We need to both inform them as well as form them:


  • Inform them – on what you need to have done
  • Form them – into the kind of person you want to employ

I’ll talk more about “informing” teens in a moment, but first a word about “forming.”  It’s this second piece–forming character–that kids need the whole community of adults to take seriously.  Form them, mold them, mentor them, and you will do the world a service.  Bonus: you’ll get the employee you seek!

Formation with Mutual Respect

Yes, form and mold them, but do it respectfully.  Although they might not always be able to cognitively express it, teens are very emotionally intuitive.  They know when they are being patronized.  Or used.  There’s a thousand clichés that encourage kindness and love over judgment.

I often encounter adults who get annoyed with a teen who is not performing a given job as expected.  But rather than talking to the teen, they’ll just opt to not hire them again.  I encourage you to talk with the kid.  Sometimes they need more information.  Sometimes they need more formation.

In reality, teens (like all kids… and all of us, honestly) make mistakes.  Some of them careless or negligent (where they should have known better), other mistakes are honest and innocent.  Work from the presumption that the teen you’re working with really wants to do the right thing.  They need you to teach them.  And remember it’s not just about you: the whole world will benefit if you can help in the formation of this kid.

I find that Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (as well as Sean Covey’s Seven Habits for Highly Effective Teens) offers some great guiding insights here.

  • Habit 1: Be Proactive – Take “being responsible” to the next level.  Instead of responding to problems, think ahead and prevent a situation from becoming a problem.
    • Explicitly tell teens that you value this characteristic.
  • Habit 4: Think Win-Win – Rather than thinking about a situation having a winner and a loser pitted against each other, think of the situation in a way that is mutually beneficial for all.
    • Try to approach every conversation with teens with this mindset.
  • Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood – First listen.  Don’t presume you know why something did (or didn’t) happen.
    • Ask (non-threatening) questions with the honest intention of understanding.  Once the teen is assured that you understand his/her position, then they will be more likely to listen and understand you.

I won’t say that I practice these insights perfectly every time, but they make a huge difference.

For example: I currently use a 14 year old neighbor “Gary” as my babysitter.  Last summer I hired Gary to watch my boys while I worked at home in my office for a few days here and there.  He had watched the kids several times before, but just for an hour or two before bedtime.  This was for a 4-5 hour mid-day block.  I needed him to feed them lunch and watch them all afternoon, while I worked.  His first summer-sitting day was on a Friday.  He was a little on the “passive” side and my kids got bored.  After five hours, it bordered on disaster for everyone.

I took the weekend to think it through and asked him to come by the following Tuesday evening (before I needed him to babysit again).  It helped that several days had passed; we were able to talk more objectively about the situation and less emotionally.  I suspected that he was babysitting because his mom thought it was a good idea, and I wanted to give him an out.  But rather than accuse or assume, I asked:

Do you really want this job?

To my surprise, he said “Yes.”  So I continued: “I’m glad to hear you say that, but as I’m sure you know, the way things ended on Friday did not work for anyone.  Let’s talk about what we can do differently.”  For starters, I explained that I need a proactive sitter so that my kids don’t get bored.  He didn’t need to be an entertainer, but he did need to direct, oversee, and suggest (as well as supervise cleanup).  I gave him a list of all the games and activities they could do.   The next summer-sitting-session was a thousand times better.

Information: Be Clear On Expectations

When hiring a teen, one of the first things adults want to know is how much to pay.  Regional costs of babysitting, for example, will vary greatly.  Most kids have a hard time discussing pay.  They will say “I don’t know; whatever.”

In reality, the teen needs a chance to size up the scope of the job.  For instance, with babysitting, teens want to know :

  • How many kids?
  • How well-behaved are the kids?
  • What does the teen actually need to do while they are there?

Still, teens often have a hard time figuring out a number.  In addition to always asking the teen what their rate is, I would suggest:

  • Know the regional going rate for babysitting.  As with any job, the more inexperienced teens will be paid less (and will need you to form and inform them a little more).  Be able to suggest a fair rate if the teen waivers.
  • Clearly articulate your priorities

When it comes to priorities, be explicit.  In babysitting, the safety of the kids is the #1 priority.  Be overt; say it aloud.  That way if you ask the teen to do anything else, they can be assured that nothing matters as much as your kid’s safety, and are encouraged to make decisions accordingly.

Then consider what else you’d like to see happen:  Would you like the teen to feed them dinner?  Would you like them to clean up afterwards?  Consider whether or not you would be willing to pay a sitter an extra $1 or $2 an hour to come home to a clean house.  Explicitly tell the teen this.

If you can clean up after dinner and make sure the kids’ toys are picked up, I’d be happy to pay you ___ (more).  If you’d rather not, we can keep the rate at ___.

If you expect certain things to be done, the teen needs to know it.  If you are willing to pay more money for more work, the teen needs to know it.  If you would be open to the teen suggesting “extra” jobs that he/she could do, the teen needs to know it.

Part of forming teens means helping them make informed decisions (even if the informed decision involves the realization that a certain job isn’t working out).

I welcome your comments and questions.  Let’s help each other form and inform teens.  The whole world will benefit.