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On The Personal Property Rights of Children; or, Why Our Lemonade Stand Failed
From the archives: originally written in 2017
You’d be amazed how hard it is to give away free cookies. My daughter had been wanting to do a lemonade stand forever, but I resisted. She’s 4 and has no problem taking money from strangers. I’m 32 and find the whole process unbearably awkward. But she doesn’t need or really care about the money. She’s after the experience, reenacting what she saw other kids doing on the street or on youtube. Like most things, if you agree to do it enough but never actually do, it tends to go away. But she kept bringing it up. So I had a idea that would satisfy both her desire and my neuroses. Give it away for free! Brilliant!
We formed a business plan. Our products would be cookies and ice water. She loves to make cookies, and we would always take some to our neighbors, so we already had some brand recognition. While the cookies were baking, she loaded up a bag of ice, got a stack of paper cups, and filled a pitcher with water. I wrote FREE COOKIES on a big poster board, which she decorated. The plan was to set up at the end of the driveway on a hot saturday afternoon, when there would be plenty of traffic. She would hold the sign up; I would try not to eat all of our inventory. We even had an adorable baby (at the time) rolling around in the grass next to us. Since these are literally the best cookies in existence—fight me!—I figured it would be an easy sell.
The first car comes by, a big family SUV. Virginia is so excited. She leaps up, flashes her biggest smile, waves the sign, and watches as the car drives right by. No problem. They were probably just in a hurry, or they are gluten intolerant or hate chocolate or something. The next car comes, and Virginia does her whole dance routine, but it doesn’t stop. Neither do the next several. At this point she is getting a little disappointed. Finally, a car pulls up. “Just for free?” says an older man we’ve never met, thinking we meant free with a donation to build wells for starving puppies with AIDS. “Just free,” we say, just for fun, just to meet our neighbors and bless them. Eventually a few more people stop and we manage to get rid of the cookies. Most people tried to pay us. I think we let her keep a dollar. Virginia was satisfied. I was discouraged.
The problem was with our business model. You have to consider what a lemonade stand means. Why do most people stop when they see kids set up on the side of the road? It’s not for the lemonade. If people won’t stop for free homemade cookies they certainly won’t stop for overpriced lemonade. Nor is it exactly about the kids. I had some really cute kids out there. No, it’s about the lesson. We stop and give a few bucks in exchange for sour sugar water and we tolerate and fund our children’s schemes because we believe in teaching them the virtues of free enterprise and work, the importance of financial responsibility and saving. To do that they need to have some capital of their own. It all goes back to that quintessential American value: personal property rights.
That’s not a bad lesson to learn. It’s very practical. When my children (heaven forbid) grow up, they will have to work and save and spend and invest. I don’t want them to overspend on petty luxuries or rack up credit card debt. I want them to be responsible adults. I’m not sure how giving my daughter a few dollars to spend on temporary tattoos, skittles, and shopkins teaches her that, though it’s harmless enough, but it does reveal a truth not nearly enough us have learned at any age. My daughter has nothing that was not given to her. She owns nothing. Her room is not hers. Her toys were all gifts. Her money in her purse is the fruit of generous strangers and family. The purse, too. What claim does she have on any of it? Does she deserve to be upset when it is gone, used up, or broken? Does she not have to give her brother a turn? Must she hold on tightly, as though she will not receive even more and better things? But she does.
Am I any different? We have a hard time accepting the generosity of others because we want to feel as though we deserve everything we get. We want to own it. If we own them, if we earned them with our profitable lemonade sales, then we don’t have to share our toys, we can work until we collect them all, and it becomes possible to count them up to see who has the most. Kids don’t need to learn this. It’s all around them. Like her father, possessiveness is Virginia’s default conception. There will be time when that will serve her well in the world, when it will be necessary to understand financial responsibility and appreciate the value of a dollar earned, a time to assert her personal property rights, but for now I want her (and myself) to understand something much more basic. You have nothing. Don’t cling to it. Give it away. Even if no one wants it. I’ll eat the cookies, if it helps.