Dear Salty: I’m a parent to a teenage girl, and she’s expressed an interest about waitressing at a restaurant to earn some extra money. I’ve read that Anthony Bourdain book about the terrible things that happen at a restaurant, but I also believe that’s an extreme example. Can you tell me all the real reasons for and against allowing my daughter to work at a restaurant?
Dear Not Sold,
I truly did not think I’d see the day when I’d be asked about parenting advice. All my houseplants are well shriveled, you know, and just the other week, my niece fell off her bike and got stung by a bee, both on my watch.
But I’ve been in this business since I could legally drive, and that counts for something. I myself was a young girl with a job waiting tables uh, let’s call it not so long ago. What I learned at that first job were lessons I’ve taken with me all my life. It wasn’t always pretty, that’s for shit sure, but I think I’m the better for it.
In terms of the legal details, by the way, you’ll want to read up on what the Fair Labor Standards Act says about teenage workers. If your daughter is 15 years old or younger, she won’t be able to work past 7 p.m. during the school year and 9 p.m. in the summer, which already takes her out of the running for certain serving gigs. Honestly, from what I experienced working in my first restaurant job, I’m not sure it’s the best environment for a 15-year-old anyway, if you want my two cents. Past 15 years old, she can work unlimited hours doing “non-hazardous” tasks, which means her meat-grinding dreams will have to wait another few years.
So okay, let’s get these out of the way: That early restaurant job was the first time I saw people openly use drugs. It was the first time I had an adult steal from me. It was the first time I had more than $100 in cash in my hand and a reason to be out past 10 at night. It was the first time I could easily ask older people to buy me beer, and have them say yes. Sadly, it wasn’t the first or last time I’d had a man stare down my shirt or pay me a “compliment.”
But that was also where I learned real-life responsibility: How to work longer to make more money, how to be polite even when you’re seething inside, how to show up on time when you don’t want to, and how to say no to friends’ parties because you have to sleep before working a brunch shift the next morning—learned that one the hard way. You see people in all their highs and lows, from super-generous regulars to the worst entitled assholes. It’s the real world, and better to learn about it sooner rather than later. Nobody babied me in that job, and it sometimes it kicked my ass. I’m glad it did, because I’ve made a living in restaurants and bars ever since.
So it comes down to how well you know and trust your daughter. If she has a good head on her shoulders, why not let her try this while she’s still living under your roof? One thing I wish I’d had in that first job were more people my age to talk to. I was the youngest person at that job by a decade at least, and looking back, I got taken advantage of sometimes. (And voila, the birth of The Salty Waitress.)
My advice to you—grain of salt/dead houseplants—is to help your daughter find a job at a reputable restaurant with other kids near her age. Maybe she can work at a restaurant you’re familiar with. (Also, she’ll probably be leaving the parking lot late, a walk I always dreaded, so check out how well-lit the parking lot is.) Make sure she knows what’s okay behavior from coworkers and managers and what’s not. Promise her you’ll listen if she comes to you with work problems. Know who she works with. Know what her shifts are. Make sure she doesn’t blow all her tips on cigarettes and acrylic nails like I did.
Working in a restaurant can be difficult for a kid, but it can also pay off. She might end up with a career in hospitality, or just a skill set she can use later in life, or she might hate the job and quit after a month. Either way, she won’t know if she doesn’t try. Keep an eye on her, and good luck.
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