The Paper Route

“Mom, can I have a paper route?”
“No.” My answer was automatic. A job implied a responsibility I had yet to associate with my eleven-year-old son.

“But Mom, Dan has one and he makes $75 dollars a month.”

“Good for Dan. The answer is still no. You have enough trouble getting out of bed for school.”

“This is different. I can do it, Mom. I know I can.”

“I said no.”

“Why don’t you just admit it. You think I’m too dumb and stupid to handle it. You just don’t trust me.”

I didn’t call him dumb or stupid—those were his words, not mine. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder, was that the message I gave him?

“Let him do it,” my husband said. “It’ll build character and muscles.”

Easy for you to say, I thought. You won’t have to nag him about getting up in the morning.
You won’t have to drive him when he’s late.

After weeks of pressure, I finally caved in, sure that I would be vindicated in mere weeks at my son’s inability to cope with the daily pressures. My agreement came with a list of restrictions. I refused to roll papers. I refused to drive him, even in the rain or cold. I refused to make sure he got up in the morning. Ryan wanted the responsibility. I wanted nothing to do with it. Maybe it sounds cruel, but I just couldn’t believe he was ready for that kind of commitment. And the best and quickest way I could figure for him to learn that mother knew best was to let him fall flat on his face.

Funny how it turned out that mother didn’t know nearly as much as she thought she did.

After a two hour orientation, Ryan’s adviser handed him a route list of forty-one houses on eight different streets. Ryan hopped on his bike and rode along his route, trying to acquaint himself with his customers in the daylight hours. He went to bed smiling, a half hour before his usual bedtime.

“I have to get up real early, you know,” he reminded me.

At two a.m. the next morning, our dog began to bark. I poked my husband in the side.

“What’s that noise?” I whispered.

“Don’t worry,” he told me. “That’s just the papers being dropped off. It will happen every morning about this time.”

“Terrific,” I grumbled.

I watched the digital numbers on my clock tick by. Three o’clock, four o’clock, five o’clock.

Would Ryan remember to get up? Was that his alarm going off? I didn’t hear any noises that sounded like he was awake. At five-twenty I couldn’t stand it any longer. I tip-toed down the hall to his room.

His bed was empty.

I made my way downstairs, careful to stay back in the shadows where I could watch without being seen. Ryan sat on his knees with a stack of papers a foot high in front of him. One by one, he flipped the paper toward him, folded it twice and slid on a rubber band. Then he stacked the papers in his bag, twenty in front, twenty-one in back.

How will he ever carry them all? I wondered. Small for his age, I couldn’t picture Ryan’s narrow shoulders supporting the heavy burden. I watched in surprise as Ryan hefted the bag over the arm of the couch. Then he bent down on his knees beside the bag and pulled the papers toward him and onto his shoulders. He staggered a few steps before standing, but when he made it to his feet I gave a silent cheer.

In minutes he was on his bike and down the road. Within weeks he had the route memorized and had signed up seven new customers.

But when it came time to go collecting at the end of the first month, customers either weren’t home, didn’t want to pay their bill or swore they paid by mail. I thought for sure Ryan would give up. Instead, he surprised me once again. He applied a diligence to collecting that I wished he’d apply to his homework. He conferred with the Main Office over mail payments and turned the deadbeats over to his adviser. He never once asked for any help from me.

I’m not sure you ever really teach a child responsibility. You can try chore charts and rewards, but I think the best lessons are more of trial and error. Responsibility is an adventure a child takes on his own, like learning to ride a bicycle without the training wheels. Sometimes you fall down, but eventually you get the hang of it and ride off into new territory.

After two years, Ryan still has the paper route. He’s up to seventy-five houses now and he’s saving for a car. I no longer worry about him being able to handle the job. With time, his shoulders have gotten a little broader. But more importantly, he’s standing up a little straighter and walking with pride.

Way to go, Ryan.

This article and other various versions of it have been previously published in: South Florida Parent, Kid Konnection, Chicago Parent, Charlotte Parent, Kidzette, Sydney’s Child, Childsplay, and Carolina Parent.

Please contact me for permission to reproduce this or any of my other articles.