Making capitalism out of lemons

Today’s discerning parents insist lemonade stands teach children lessons about capitalism – can’t we all just have fun?

Let’s take a moment to praise the humble lemonade stand.

Defending the nation’s young merchants of lemonade is something of an annual tradition for me. Last year, I did a spoken commentary for American Public Media’s Marketplace Money, protesting the number of lemonade consumers who were less than happy that my 12-year-old son Jake appeared to view his concession stand as a way of supplementing his parental allowance.

As it turned out, more than a few of Jake’s lemonade consumers were convinced that the only legitimate reason a child should set up a beverage shop on a hot summer day was to raise money for charity. Even more astonishingly, they thought it was okay to lecture a tween that many had never met before about this.

I thought it couldn’t get worse than that. But I was wrong. Now parents are insisting that lemonade stands teach lessons about how capitalism works. Seriously.

Let’s take Los Angeles poet, essayist and mother Michal Lemberger. She penned a piece for the website Slate earlier this month, about the experience of her two daughters, ages four and six, with a lemonade stand they set up in front of a local community center.

The children, let it be said, had a blast.

Not Lemberger, who found herself dismayed. She thought her children would learn valuable lessons about how to run a business.

Instead, she discovered a group of Los Angelenos so desperate to patronize a lemonade stand, not a single one would accept change. Hell, a few were so eager to offer her girls encouragement, they offered money and wouldn’t even take the drink.

Lemberger concluded her daughter’s customers were thirsty all right, but it wasn’t for liquid. It was for a memory of their own innocent childhood. They wanted to drink at the well of nostalgia.

This was not good enough for Lemberger, who decided offering potential customers a chance to relive the past for a few brief moments was simply not enough.

Lemonade stands “don’t teach entrepreneurship,” she concluded huffily.

Lemberger then confiscated the $14.50 in earnings for an unnamed charity, ensuring she would teach her children nothing except for the fact that living in the old Soviet Union must have been a terrible experience.

First things first. Peddling nostalgia is a pretty damn good business strategy if you can nail it, as numerous businesses and entrepreneurs from Ralph Lauren and Martha Stewart to the creators of the website Etsy, where women peddle homemade crafts, can attest. Nothing wrong with it.

Not surprisingly, lemonade stands, which might well be the ultimate in nostalgia, are enormously popular. There is no estimate that I can find of the number of lemonade stands run annually in the United States, but common sense says it must run into the millions. It is all but impossible to walk through any residential neighborhood in America’s cities or suburbs on a spring or summer day and not stumble into at least one such outfit as just about everyone reading this column could most certainly attest. One organization alone, Lemonade Day, a Houston-based organization devoted to the precept of promoting entrepreneurship among children, claims 150,000 registered stands.

Think about it this way: if kids weren’t making money, they’d probably get bored and move on. No scam runs forever.

But there is more than that.

To address Lemberger’s point and make this example as personal and anecdotal as her own, I happen to think my son learned numerous lessons in his years of running lemonade stands. He discovered location matters, since stands placed on a nearby walking trail grossed greater amounts than setting up shop in front of our house.

Time of day was important too – weekend mornings did better than pretty much any other part of the day. The colder the weather, the less product sold. Jake also gradually figured out that adding additional product lines would increase the total take, with the result that his lemonade stands run also often featured popcorn and cupcakes.

And, no, I didn’t forget the business-planning end. I was a personal finance writer for many years, after all. The price of all purchased cans of Country Time Lemonade powder were deducted from the take, and I charged 50 cents for every bowl of popcorn popped, as well as for the day’s supply of cups.

Jake even discovered methods of dealing with difficult customers. My older son says he never argued with the people who asked him if he was donating his proceeds to charity. He simply said he would consider it. (For those of you who are wondering, my children give money to autism and cystic fibrosis research every year, as well as to numerous homeless people encountered on New York City streets.)

So if teaching a child about how to run a business is your goal, a lemonade stand is about as good as it gets. I mean, what else are you going to do? Bring them to “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day?”

But there is a more valuable lesson too, and it’s why I never insisted Jake donate his earnings to charity.

Jake discovered something that generations of feminists could have told him: it’s important to have a source of money independent of the authority figures in your life, even if they are the people who love you best. After all, when mom says no, she’s not ordering take-out Chinese for lunch, it’s a good thing to have your own stash.

Finally, there is a lesson in all of this for mom and dad too, something that today’s crop of humorless parents, who appear determined to turn everything into a lesson could stand to recall.

Nothing lasts forever.

This is, I confess, the first year in at least seven years Jake has not run a lemonade stand. My older son is now almost 14, an age where – well, let’s just say the world is not full of teens running small concession type businesses in front of or near their own homes.

But even if he had never learned a darn thing running those stands, he had fun for many, many years. And, really, what else can a parent want for their young children than that? © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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