The good thing that happens when your kids land small summer jobs is that they learn about business and responsibility. The bad thing is that some of the burdens of these entrepreneurial enterprises fall on parents, who, if they are like me, are in the business of shedding responsibility.
I thought of this the other night as I struggled to help my older son unlock a neighbor's door. These neighbors had hired my son take care of their cat and check on their house while they were on vacation. The routine was that the kid, who is 14, was supposed to unlock the front door, deactivate the alarm system, then feed the beast.
The part that worried me was dealing with the alarm system. Last summer, our family had a memorable encounter with another neighbor's alarm system. The younger boy, who was then 9, had been retained to water a neighbor's backyard, a task that required opening and closing an automatic garage door. Instead of hitting the button that operated the garage door, the kid accidentally hit the button that set off the alarm. The howling lasted for hours. Finally I was able to reach the neighbors, by telephone, at their vacation spot and get instructions on how to silence the maddening din.
So the other night, when one of the kids made this summer's first attempt at turning off a neighbor's alarm, I was there.
The alarm turned out to be no trouble. The trouble was we couldn't get the door open. The key was too fat for the keyhole, or so it seemed. My son tried the key. I tried. We located another key to the door from a next door neighborhood. The neighbor tried his key, it too seemed too fat. Pretty soon the cat appeared on the inside of the door and announced it was hungry.
I was getting agitated, but the kid remained calm. He informed me that yet another neighbor had a key to the door. We tracked down this key. But it turned out to be just as wide as the other two. The scene reminded me of Cinderella's stepsisters trying to squeeze their fat feet into a skinny glass slipper.
Eventually the kid called the neighbors at their seaside vacation spot. It was early evening and I had visions of these neighbors stretched out in comfortable chairs, holding a cold beverages, watching the setting sun glimmer off the ocean. Most adults work 50 weeks of the year just so they can get to such a tranquil setting. Once they get there, the last thing they want to hear is a report that there is trouble back home. Nonetheless, our vacationing neighbors seemed to take the phone call in stride. They told us that the fat key would indeed fit in the skinny keyhole.
Emboldened by these words and carrying a can of WD-40, we returned to the door. We sprayed the lubricant on the key and in the keyhole. Once it was all-slicked up, the key slid into the keyhole like a 40-year-old squeezing into Spandex. It was a tight fit, but it worked. What it took was a belief that the deed was doable. And some practice.
When the door was open, the kid dealt with the alarm, fed the cat, and redialed the vacationing neighbors to tell them that all was well. He even dispatched a few ants who were vacationing in the empty kitchen.
(Speaking of ants I want to thank readers who responded to last Saturday's column on battling ants by reminding me of the correct ending to the Carl Stephenson's short story "Leiningen Versus the Ants." The story ends with man defeating the ants. That is why it is fiction. In real life, the ants prevail. At least, that is what another reader told me while reporting what happened when she tried my ant-repelling potion of equal parts white vinegar and water. So far there have no reports on my other suggested method of ant pacification -- soaking the critters in beer.)
My kids do not welcome my self-appointed role as supervisor of their summer jobs. For example, when the 14-year-old landed a grass-cutting job, he weathered a series of lectures from me about the dangers of operating a power mower. I even visited his job site. The kid told me to chill out. Such interference, he said, could lessen his appeal to potential employers.
Like most kids, mine are attracted to summer jobs by the money. They quickly learn that when they earn their own money they can buy their own junk.
So as the summer wears on and dogs are walked and lawns are watered and weeds are pulled, money will be saved. By Labor Day some totally tasteless objects will be purchased. All I hope for is that no alarm bells go off in the process.