Maybe we really should look at relaxing child labor laws that hold young teens back from working at fast-food joints, sacking groceries or bussing tables.

Newt Gingrich certainly is pushing the notion, and some of what he has to say has merit. Seriously.

As you may have heard, the Republican presidential hopeful recently created a buzz on the campaign trail by suggesting that we do away with "truly stupid" child labor laws.

Gingrich even argued in another speech for firing "overpaid janitors" in New York City and replacing them with poor schoolchildren.

The earlier that kids start punching the clock, the better -- and that means starting with nine-year-olds, he said.

Gingrich has targeted the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was created in 1938 partly to prevent kids from working in soot-filled factories and sweatshops instead of going to school. The law sets wages, hours worked and safety requirements for minors under age 18 working in a variety of jobs. Under the law, children are generally not allowed to be employed at a business until they turn 14.

Gingrich's comments and subsequent remarks that continue to promote his notion of relaxing child labor laws as a way to fight poverty and high dropout rates have generated predictable and mostly negative feedback. Among opponents' arguments: Kids would be a cheap source of labor for businesses; they would take away jobs from older workers, and they could also get hurt and be less focused at school.

How, they ask, will flooding the job market with youngsters really help families?

I don't know if Gingrich truly believes grade schoolers should be working janitorial jobs or if he has any clear research to support his claims. Perhaps it should be written off as typical election-year bombast from a politician who over the years has had some interesting ideas that stirred the pot.

Of course, allowing grade school kids to hold down a part-time job is an absurd idea. And I'm not comfortable loosening regulations to allow 12- or 13-year-olds to be employed. Baby-sitting and lawn-mowing jobs provide them a pretty good training ground.

But, I'm all for tweaking some of the federal -- and state -- restrictions that limit hours so more kids ages 14 and up who really want to work or need to work can do so and earn more money.

The money young teens earn could shoulder their expenses when they're out of high school and college bound, or as they try to line up a full-time job and live more independently.

I've also found that somehow my money is always easier for my kids to spend than their own. Of course, I always find it easier to spend my wife's than my own, so that's understandable. So there's a learning opportunity about this notion of delayed gratification when kids make purchases with their own earnings or savings.

Landing a job is not just about the money, but the knowledge gained about the workplace, the importance of being on time and being responsible for performance.

The debate opened up by Gingrich will likely be around for a while on the campaign trail and in state legislatures.

In fact, before Gingrich mentioned the topic, Maine and Wisconsin had already altered their child labor laws.

Wisconsin legislators removed a 26-hour-a-week limit on work for 16- and 17-year-olds. Maine changed its laws to allow teens to work 24 hours a week, though they must clock out by 10:15 p.m.

As Dick Grotton, head of the Maine Restaurant Association, told Bloomberg News: "How come it's OK, even exemplary, for teenagers to spend 40 hours a week in sports, glee club, chorus, debate society or any other select activity sanctioned by the social elite, but if you are a teenager who wants to work or needs to work, there are limits?" Which is another way of saying that kids working is not a bad thing.

(Questions, comments, column ideas? Send an e-mail to srosen(AT)kcstar.com or write to him at The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.)