By Sarah Vander Schaaff
And so we have come to this, a headline:
“Let’s stop trying to turn lemonade stands into MBA programs.”
In the post in Fortune that followed that headline last July, Dan Mitchell says, essentially, “enough already.”
Mitchell’s argument is more nuanced than the headline but his point is blunt: let the games of childhood serve their own purposes. The only thing to squeeze into an afternoon pitching refreshments to the neighbors is a bag of lemons, not lessons in profit margins.
Mitchell refers to Michal Lemberger in Slate, who in her post, “Down with Lemonade Stands” debunks the idea that lemonade sales teach entrepreneurship because customers don’t actually compare prices and the quality of the lemonade.
But Mitchell goes beyond that, to question the criteria by which we have come judge the lemonade stand’s value, increasingly focused on, “…how fully they impart the lessons of free-market capitalism.”
It’s here that he takes a cue from Mr. Rogers and others, reminding us that the work of childhood is play. And the joy derived from play is the point of endeavors such as lemonade stands.
“…Having fun — play — is how kids learn,” he says. “….Here, they’re learning how to obtain water, sugar, and lemonade (the supply chain), how to mix them together (the manufacturing process) and how to set up the stand, make a sign, and pass out the goods (capital infrastructure, and marketing and distribution.) It’s all pretend, as it’s supposed to be.”
I agree, although let’s not confuse pretend with imaginary. There is work to be done and some of it requires mom or dad. As the backer of a certain lemonade stand, now in it’s third week of operation, I can say that strawberry lemonade is quite popular in 90-degree weather and you can never have enough ice. Today, after requests from the construction workers nearby, my daughter and her friend added hotdogs to their fare. And, no, it’s not the nine year olds firing up the grill, but a very supportive grandfather.
Still, the kids are they are the ones making change and sometimes running out of cups, or negotiating with a twenty-two month old who wants a hotdog, bag of chips and a strawberry lemonade right before naptime.
I haven’t asked my daughter what she’s learned from doing the stand. But I have seen her enthusiasm for it and her awareness that she’s pretty good at handling a lot of moving parts at once. I’ve stood by when she realized she charged one person a tad too much, or another too little. Mistakes, to be sure, but ones that didn’t bring with them the same frustration as those on a math worksheet. The buck, so to speak, stops with her.
It’s time now to count the month’s total and split up the money among the neighbor kids and donate some to the zoo. Division will be helpful but so will a sense of fairness, altruism, accomplishment and joy.
So many of our decisions about parenting come back to the impulse that makes us want to create those mini-MBA training grounds. We want our kids to succeed. And success, in a world of global competition, seems more difficult to attain. So we prepare them early and with everything we’ve got.
But in doing so we risk bypassing the experiences that make up their own sense of purpose and accomplishment, skipping moments when there’s no direct connection to future achievement but simply a feeling about oneself or how to engage with the world.
There have been days when my daughter and her friend have spent two hours waiting for a single customer. They sit in lawn chairs, working on rainbow loom bracelets or duct tape wallets, chatting and re-arranging the ice in a cooler.
They probably won’t remember how much they made with their little stand. But they’ll most likely always remember how they felt running it.
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