Lemonade Stands Don’t Teach Kids Anything About Capitalism

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
July 9 2013 5:30 AM

Down With Lemonade Stands

They don’t teach kids a single thing about how capitalism works.

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To be fair, they were ace marketers—they immediately began shouting, “Lemonade, 50 cents a cup” at the top of their little lungs—but I suspect that location may have had more to do with their success than advertising. We set up the stand across the street from our house, in front of a community center with a park and heavily used basketball courts. On that busy corner, their lemonade sold out in less than half an hour. Their business was so popular, so quickly, that they didn’t have to do much to make their money—in fact, they didn’t even have to sell lemonade.

One woman stopped her car, rolled down the window, handed over a dollar, and then refused to take the plastic Solo cup offered to her. An older couple out for a stroll bought a round for three twentysomething strangers who were already on their way to the corner 7-Eleven to get change. The pitchers were empty by the time the three guys got back, but one of them handed my daughter three bucks anyway. And not a single person who bought lemonade from my children would take the change owed them.

An enterprising young boy sets up a stall selling cake, candy and lemonade to his neighbors, 1955.
An enterprising young boy sets up a stall selling cake, candy and lemonade to his neighbors in 1955. He may be having fun, but he's learning squat about business.

Photo by Harold M. Lambert/Getty Images

If my children’s experience is in any way representative, lemonade stands are joyfully embraced by adults but they don’t teach entrepreneurship. My kids’ clientele didn’t act like typical customers: They didn’t compare the price and quality of my kids’ lemonade to the price and quality of the lemonade being sold by other kids a few blocks over. They didn’t haggle. And that was the problem. Rather than encouraging an understanding of the value of money and hard work, my daughters’ customers taught them that all they had to do was show up.

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In their eagerness to help my daughters learn about private enterprise, they ironically undermined that lesson. Capitalism isn’t sentimental. It doesn’t coddle entrepreneurs. More businesses fail than survive.  People think of lemonade stands as representative of pure enterprise, but in enthusiastically supporting them, they deny the true nature of our consumer culture, which rests on both the ideal and reality of competition and ruthlessness.

Something else was going on with my daughters’ customers, too. The sight of small children selling cups of lemonade stirred some sweet emotion in every adult who gladly handed over their dollar bills, from the local dry cleaner to the father driving his daughter home from summer camp. I couldn’t help but think that the pleasure they took in my children’s experience reflected wistfulness for their own lost youth. Mintz, the historian, agrees. “We live in a deep culture of nostalgia, because things change so quickly,” he told me. “We find it very difficult to give our kids the same kind of childhood we had.” A dollar must have seemed like a small price for my daughters’ customers to pay for the comfort of seeing small kids performing the exact same guileless ritual they had once performed in their childhood.

An exchange takes place between youthful lemonade vendors and their adult clients, but it’s not a capitalistic one. For adults, giving kids money is a chance to indulge in rosy-hued nostalgia. As for the kids, they get a chance to play “business,” just as they play dress-up or family. But adults usually fail to remember what the best part of the playacting is for the kids. My children, who were still young enough to think that two quarters add up to more money than a single dollar bill, were far more excited about giving out lemonade than about making money. It made them happy to see adults help them play out their vision of what a lemonade stand should be, cup by delicious cup. The only reason they sold lemonade instead of giving it away for free is that selling is a crucial part of the image of the lemonade stand.

It didn’t matter to them that they made only $14.50, or that I unilaterally decided their proceeds would go to charity. They happily handed over their till, already begging me to let them do it again.

Michal Lemberger is a freelance writer, poet, and editor living in Los Angeles. She has written for Salon, Smithsonian.com, and the LA Weekly.

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