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HAGELIN: Summer downtime needs to be balanced

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Culture Challenge of the Week: Summer Slackers

A Washington, D.C., radio host recently asked his listeners how they felt about city pools hiring Eastern European teenagers to fill summer lifeguarding positions instead of hiring American teens to do the jobs.

As listeners weighed in on whether foreign teens should have first dibs on those jobs, one thing became clear: Many adults perceive that American teens value entertainment over work and volunteer opportunities. Why should employers hire teenagers who are unwilling to work hard and are too likely to quit or who prioritize "chill time" over the rewards of a summer job or service opportunity?

Are we raising a generation of summer slackers?

On the one hand, as one dad lamented, children today are superbusy. It's hard to fit work or volunteering into a summer schedule crowded with social outings, sports, camps and family vacations. One soccer parent I knew quite proudly told me that his daughter, "Tammy," had never held a summer job. Her "job" every summer was to have fun, play soccer and "relax" from the pressures of the achievement-oriented, fall-to-summer grind of high school.

For affluent teens like Tammy, mom and dad's money spigot can become a form of deprivation. They lose the rich experience of hard work in the service of others and the pride of seeing a bank account grow slowly with hard-earned dollars. They miss the truth that self-worth and self-respect grow best as we serve others, whether in paid work or volunteering.

Don't get me wrong — I firmly believe teens need downtime in the summer — but it needs to consist of healthy relaxation, not endless wasted days. The temptation to be a summer slug often is fueled by some teenagers' unrealistic expectations that life should be entertaining, always. Activities must be fun to be worthwhile.

If a job becomes deadly dull (as many entry-level jobs eventually do) the teenager of today might up and quit. Why sort clothing donations at a charity thrift shop — even one day a week — when better times beckon at the local mall or neighborhood pool?

The entertainment mentality can be particularly damaging for less affluent teens. The fun at their fingertips — electronic entertainment — may undermine their desire to work or volunteer. They lose the chance to gain real-world experience that could prepare them to become employees or to set goals beyond today.

A recent story in the New York Times highlighted an emerging "digital divide" among teens. Kids from less-affluent households have access to technology but use it almost exclusively for entertainment, not education. Kaiser Family Foundation media researcher Victoria Rideout notes, "Despite the educational potential of computers ... their use for education or meaningful content creation is minuscule compared to their use for pure entertainment. ... Instead of closing the achievement gap, they're widening the time-wasting gap."

According to a 2010 Kaiser study, children of lower-income families spend 90 minutes more each day using media than more affluent children do — but with no benefit. It's an extra 1 1/2 hours wasted each day — time that would be better spent on productive educational or service activities.

Such wasted time blights the potential of children whose futures may rest more on what they themselves bring to the table than the opportunities afforded by education or privilege.

Income aside, the sad reality is that many teens — rich or poor — won't unglue themselves from their cellphones, ear buds and iPads long enough to submit job applications, look for service opportunities or commit to an employer's work schedule.

How to Save Your Family: Relax and Work, With Purpose.

Children of all ages need time to be kids, to reconnect with siblings and parents — and catch up on much-needed rest. Unstructured time can fuel creativity, but endless (and often unsupervised) time playing video games, texting or watching TV saps the energy and life out of them. Unhealthy boredom sets in, and the imagination grows dull as their world shrinks to the size of a screen.

If work is unavailable, consider the value of summer service. Some teens I know take summer mission trips with youth groups in the Appalachians. There, they meet lonely older folks with leaky roofs and dirty homes — people who need them. These teens shovel out living rooms full of old newspapers and trash. They replace sagging gutters, patch drywall holes and weed gardens. And they return home renewed in gratitude and purpose.

This summer, help your children look for opportunities to give to others and/or learn about the value of honest work — to discover that their leisure time should have a purpose. If they use their time well, they will return to school restored and refreshed, ready for the challenges ahead.

• Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at Rebecca@howtosaveyourfamily.com.

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