Exactly why, at age 9, I began showing up with my dad (who had an office in the same space above the Katz Drug Store on the Square in Independence, Mo.) to work in my grandfather’s law office is vague.
I didn’t get an allowance, so if I wanted a new ball glove (which I did), some Zotz and Jolly Ranchers, I had to buy my own.
And I remember jumping at the offer of money to do some organizing for my grandpa. But the cleaning of dust and grime that had accumulated in an office that my grandfather had called “home” for more than 60 years turned out not to be a one-time gig. For every summer from the third grade through high school, I worked in his office. Looking back, what happened to me there has left an indelible mark.
Today, if you read your way through the myriad blogs on the topic, the verdict on bringing kids to work is that almost unanimously it’s considered a crime. Kids are distracting, high-maintenance, noisy, productivity-sucking entities that turn an office into a playground and cause resentment and angst among co-workers.
And most child psychologists come down on the issue in much the same way as Boulder’s Christine Willis-Martinez does: doing so is neither positive nor negative, in and of itself. It’s about how the time is spent.
“It depends on how a parent creates space in the workplace for the child,” she said. “If there aren’t stressful situations and there are activities for a child, that’s fine. The safety of the child is what’s important.” She said physical danger as well as threats from unsavory adults should be considered.
For a 9-year-old, my “work environment” wasn’t dangerous; it’s not like I was helping out at the family foundry. But it was a working law office and I was expected to behave like an adult. There was no playing with cars on the desks or coloring aimlessly on the yellow legal pads that were everywhere. No, I worked and I grew to love it.
From cleaning and dusting, I graduated to replacing pocket parts in the law books and running errands to the stationery store, bank and print shop nearby.
The next summer, when I was 10, Dorothy Adrian, one of the secretaries, taught me how to type. She showed me where to keep my fingers and as I memorized what keys were under which fingers, those keys got covered with pieces of tape so as to keep me from looking.
By the end of the summer, all the keys were taped over and I was getting pretty good. So good that (much to the relief of the secretaries) I was given the stacks of yellow legal pads on which my grandfather would write out—with a forever blunt pencil—briefs for his cases in a half-printed, half-cursive shorthand-esque scrawl that was illegible, except to me.
The most fun, and when I felt most grown up, was getting to carry the big briefcases full of files to court. After getting introduced to the bailiff, Sergeant at Arms and the Judge, I sat in the front row behind my grandpa. Sometimes he would send me up the street to his office when he forgot something, but mostly, I listened and learned to be patient—skills that I used extensively covering various city councils and commissions as a reporter 20 years later.
After getting my driver’s license, I was sent to file documents in municipal, state and federal courts in Kansas City. I witnessed wills and other documents and even served people with subpoenas. Along the way, I learned how our legal system worked, what politics was about and how local government functions. But mostly, I learned about dealing with people of every stripe and stature.
At the time, I didn’t regret choosing an office over a ball diamond as my summer hangout. And today, I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. It’s just too bad that today’s office has become so hostile toward kids. The opportunity for a child to learn, grow and get a little worldly wisdom—not to mention getting to spend time with mom or dad (or grandpa!)—is, sadly, a vanishing commodity.