updated 7/20/2005 4:00:45 PM ET 2005-07-20T20:00:45

There are new faces this summer at small companies across the country: the owners' kids, getting a taste of what business is about.

Owners who hire their children for their offices or factories usually want their sons and daughters to have more than busywork; they want these new employees to have a meaningful work and learning experience.

Kel Kelley, who hired her 15-year-old daughter for her Hopkinton, Mass., marketing services company, doesn't intend to teach Julia how to be a publicist — "I'm looking to give her experience and awareness more than anything."

For example, Kelley plans to put Julia in charge of ensuring that parts of a project are completed.

"It will give her an awareness of the repercussions when someone fails to deliver something on time," said Kelley, CEO of Kel & Partners.

Kelley's hope is that three years of internships will give her daughter an advantage when she applies to college. It's also teaching Julia about managing her finances; she's putting money aside for a digital camera.

Often in a family owned business, parents hire their kids not only to help them learn, but also out of hope that their children will become interested in taking over the company some day.

Phil and Patsy Gay, who run U.S. Lawns franchises in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Ala., have had their three sons working for them at various times. The oldest, Jeremy, will join the company full-time after he graduates the University of Alabama with a business management degree later this year.

The Gays said their son's work experience helped him in his studies, and vice versa, and while he and his younger brothers have done a variety of jobs with the landscaping company, Jeremy will be helping to run the company when he gets his degree.

"We would like for them to buy into this," Phil Gay said.

Face new relationship with care
While there is much to be gained from having a child work in a parent's business, management consultant Lonnie Pacelli warned that this new relationship — that of employer-employee — needs to be approached with care.

"You absolutely have to set expectations up front that this is ... different," said Pacelli, owner of Leading on the Edge International in Sammamish, Wash.

He suggests owners let teens know that at work, their mothers or fathers are now their bosses, not parents.

And, "to avoid confusing them, you're going to behave slightly differently" at work than you would at home, Pacelli said. When there's on-the-job conflict, "if you're mad at them as a manager, don't be mad at them as a parent," he said.

Still, it can be hard for a 16-year-old to separate out the different roles. Your child could spend the evening sulking at home because he or she got in trouble with the boss.

In that case, Pacelli said, "you have to coach them and talk them through stuff."

The owner also has to be sure that the familial relationship doesn't get in the way of running the business. Your young worker needs to be treated the same as any other employee — you shouldn't make things easier, but you shouldn't be tougher on them, either.

But some parents do see the value — perhaps the need — in working their kids hard.

Keith Campbell, chairman of Mannington Mills, a Salem, N.J., flooring manufacturer, is the fourth generation to run his family's business. He recalled that when he was in boarding school and "came home with less than a stellar grade point average," his father put him to work in the company's saturation department, working in 100-degree-plus heat with asphalt and chemicals. And, his father warned him, he could stay there.

"That's what's going to happen to you if you don't do well in college," he recalled his dad saying.

Campbell has three children, two of whom are working at the company. He's interested in seeing his kids, or his nieces or nephews, be part of the fifth generation to run Mannington Mills.

His oldest son, John, has already had some experience with the ups and downs of being a boss. When the company revamped its payroll software, there were problems with all the paychecks, and Mannington Mills had a bevy of unhappy employees — who unleashed their fury on John when he went to the plant.

"I told John, you learned the most important aspect of business that they won't teach in college," his father recalled. "It's not your fault, but you're responsible."

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