A couple of years ago, Verizon debuted a critically acclaimed series of ads called “Susie’s Lemonade Stand.” At the beginning of the first 30-second spot, a young girl named Susie opens a lemonade stand in her front yard; by the end of it, with the help of a Verizon smartphone, she’s a suited mini-mogul commanding legions of employees.
The commercials perpetuated the popular notion that selling lemonade is an invaluable way for children to learn about free enterprise. This idea has been exploited by advertisers for decades: Check out this 1947 General Electric magazine ad featuring a cherub-faced little boy selling “leminade” for 3 cents. (“He’s American business—in miniature,” reads the ad copy.)
The notion of young lemonade vendors as small-business owners is so ingrained that it’s sometimes taken literally by adults: Every summer seems to bring a story of an overzealous police chief or health inspector who closes down children’s lemonade stands for lack of food or resale licenses. During last year’s presidential campaign, the often laughable morning cable show Fox & Friends got in on the act, interviewing 4- and 7-year old sisters Eliza and Clara Sutton, owners and operators of a lemonade stand, as examples of small-business owners who “built it” themselves (contra President Obama’s campaign speech).
It’s also nonsense. My kids had a lemonade stand, and it didn’t look like any version of capitalism I’ve ever seen. If we really want our kids to learn how the modern American economy works, we’re going to have to take off the kid gloves.
Lemonade stands haven’t always been so Rockwellian. Lemon-based drinks were sold on the streets of American cities at least as far back as the mid-19th century. Lemonade stands were staples of church picnics and school fundraisers, but more often than not, lemonade was sold (by children and adults alike) out of necessity. According to historian Steven Mintz, author of Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were tens of thousands of children who were homeless or deeply impoverished. “They were supporting themselves hand to mouth,” says Mintz. “They did it because the situation was horrible.”
Eventually, beliefs and laws about child labor shifted, leaving most commercial activities off-limits for young people. But selling lemonade was seen as a sign of pluck and a budding, maybe even exceptional, understanding of market forces. Some of the credit (or blame) for that viewpoint must go to Edward Bok, longtime editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal. In his 1922 autobiography, The Americanization of Edward Bok, he claims that as a 10-year-old selling ice water on the hot streets of Brooklyn, he faced stiff competition from other kids. To get a leg up on them, “he squeezed half a dozen lemons into each pail of water, added some sugar, tripled his charge, and continued his monopoly by selling ‘Lemonade, three cents a glass.’ ” We’ve been living with the image of the lemonade vendor as a proto-tycoon ever since.
I don’t know where my kids got the idea to sell lemonade. Perhaps we once bought some from another child. Maybe the parentless bunnies they watched on Max and Ruby had one. One way or another, the image of a lemonade stand lodged in their minds, and they would not let it go: They badgered me about it for over a year. I decreed arbitrarily that they had to wait until they turned 4 and 6, respectively, to set up their own stand.
Their moment finally came on the first warm day of last summer. I outlined the word “LEMONADE 50¢ A CUP” on a sign, and my daughters colored in the letters. This represented their only contribution to the development of their small business. I mixed together two pitchers of lemonade from scratch—one regular, one pink—lugged out a folding table, taped on the sign, and then stood back to let them do their thing.