LOS ANGELES -- 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 selling lemonade is an invaluable way for children to learn about free enterprise. This idea has been exploited by advertisers for decades: A 1947 General Electric magazine ad features a cherub-faced little boy selling "leminade" for three cents. ("He's American business -- in miniature," reads the ad copy.)
The lemonade stand as commercial enterprise has been represented in art, movies, television shows, video games. It is literally part of Norman Rockwell's America.
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 North 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 labour 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.
I don't know where my kids got the idea to sell lemonade. Perhaps we once bought some from another child. 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 they had to wait until they turned four and six 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 coloured 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.
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 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 centre 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, 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. Not a single person who bought lemonade from my children would take the change owed them.
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 all they had to do was show up.
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.