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Bring Back Child Labor

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

It was time for our beach trip, the one I take with my wife and daughter every summer. On a beautiful early morning a month ago, we packed the family car (okay, my wife packed it) and headed from our home in Oxford, Miss., to Florida’s Gulf Coast for a week of fun and sun.

Some call it the Redneck Riviera. This Jersey transplant and his Mississippi girls call it paradise.

It’s the same Gulf Coast, by the way, that the media predicted — even seemed to hope — would be flooded with crude oil and destroyed as a result of the BP oil spill. That apocalypse never happened, but the region needed two years to recover from the really bad publicity spill, which the media never bothered to clean up.

We hit the road at 6 a.m. so as not to lose a day at the beach, and by 10 a.m. we were all getting hungry, so we stopped at a Subway shop in a small town somewhere in rural Alabama.

As we entered, we were greeted by an Indian-immigrant couple in their mid-30s and their daughter, who appeared to be no older than twelve. I didn’t ask.

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 of the bins with produce. First it was thinly sliced fresh tomatoes, then lettuce, then onions. Then it was olives, and jalapeño peppers.

When we ordered our lunch, she removed her plastic gloves and cheerfully switched roles. The prep girl was now the sandwich dresser.

“What would you like on your sandwiches?” she asked us, and then dutifully complied with our odd choices.

That’s the great thing about Subway. They’ve got all those toppings, and no matter how weird the request — and boy! have I heard some weird ones — they always comply.

The girl’s parents, probably without realizing this is what they were doing, were teaching their daughter that empowering customers to have the sandwich they want, and not the sandwich the store wants them to have, is good business.

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

“Would you like some chips and a large drink with that?” she asked. I said yes. Who could say no to a cute twelve-year-old?

Her parents had also taught her the art of the upsell. And she was not yet a teenager!

The girl then rang up our order, took our cash, gave us our change quickly (and accurately), and did it all cheerfully and professionally. She was clearly having a good time. There was no sulking, no pouting, and no sense at all that she was mad at her parents for making her work on a beautiful summer Saturday.

And all the while, she was learning some important life lessons. Lessons that are not being taught in our nation’s schools. And are 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.

The free market works.

It’s sad to say this, but that girl in the Subway shop knows more about what makes a small business hum than anyone in the Obama administration. And she has more knowledge of entrepreneurialism than many MBAs.

But she was also learning some other important life lessons. Lessons that build something few people like to talk about these days — character.

She was learning that work is good. That she is not entitled to anything. That money doesn’t grow on trees. That to have money, one must earn it.

She was learning that her parents are not an ATM, and that it takes a lot of work to pay for things like food and cable and a house.

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 have dared to do something that many modern parents refuse to do: expose their kids early to the exigencies and realities of life. They heaped adult responsibility on their twelve-year-old 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 simply give them stuff. Instead of making them work for an Android or an iPad or a car, parents simply give their kids these goodies, and ask for nothing in return. Not a thing.

These are the same coddling parents who try to protect their children from all of life’s problems. Skinned knees? Let’s get our precious little ones some kneepads. A bad bump at the playground? Rubberize the place.

A bad grade from the teacher? Who needs grades? Let’s just 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 spoiled, entitled kids, and actually hurting their chances of succeeding in an ever more competitive work force.

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

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

I was reading the Ole Miss newspaper the other day (Oxford is home to the state’s flagship university campus), and there was a full-page ad for what appeared to be a beautiful retirement condo complex. Upon closer inspection, I learned it wasn’t for seniors at all, but rather 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. Basketball court. Golf simulator. Fire pit. Green space. Swimming pool. Tanning domes. Computer lounge.”

Golf simulators? Sand volleyball courts? Is this a college dorm parents are paying for, or a Club Med?

When did a bed, a desk, a chair, a lamp, good study tools (today a laptop is actually essential), and a hot plate stop being a sufficient starting place for learning?

This is the great culture war no one is talking about right now in America. It’s the battle of the parents with common sense who want to raise responsible kids against the 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 — some of them all of 18 — walk out of gyms or restaurants in the middle of the day and step into Range Rovers or Mercedes-Benzes. We always do one of those double-takes you see in movies.

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 there next to us are eight college kids laughing it up, well dressed and having a good ole time. And 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 25. Until then, my dates got the Denny’s special.

And when I talk to these students and ask them if they have a job, they look at me as if I had just sprung a second head. “A job? Are you kidding me?” is the look I get. They don’t even bother to respond verbally.

And our little girl, Reagan — who is seven years old — sees all of this. She sees the stuff other kids have, and she will soon be asking us why we don’t give her the stuff those other parents give their kids.

We will tell Reagan, once she’s old enough, 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 the work it takes.

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

We need to fight back against the coddling culture and ask of our kids what our parents asked of us, and what their parents asked of them: Do your part. Work hard. And help pay your own way. Just a bit.

So on this Labor Day, I have an idea that I hope will soon spread around the country like a virus: Let’s extol the virtues of work, and of working children.

Not the sweatshop, indentured-servitude kind of child labor. I’m talking about the kind we all experienced when we were kids: the paper route, the job at McDonald’s or 7-Eleven, which was my first job. Or a lawn-mowing service in the neighborhood.

Labor Day as it is celebrated is really Union Day. And unions in the past 30 years have been all about slowing down work and pitting worker against owner.

I say we parents — we Americans — who care about work must make Labor Day a celebration of all work.

And while we’re at it, bring back child labor once and for all.

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