Let's stop trying to turn lemonade stands into MBA programs

July 15, 2013: 10:48 AM ET

Kids learn through play. And lemonade stands are a form of play. That's all.

Profit machine.

Profit machine.

FORTUNE -- Three years ago last week, personal-finance columnist Terry Savage wrote what might still stand as the most insane professionally produced piece of writing of this millennium. In her syndicated column "The Savage Truth," she recounted how she accosted three little girls running a lemonade stand in an "upscale suburb." It turned out they weren't selling the lemonade, but giving it away. This, Savage decided, was an affront to everything that was good and true:

"I pushed the button to roll down the window and stuck my head out to set them straight. 'You must charge something for the lemonade,' I explained. 'That's the whole point of a lemonade stand. You figure out your costs -- how much the lemonade costs, and the cups -- and then you charge a little more than what it costs you, so you can make money. Then you can buy more stuff, and make more lemonade, and sell it and make more money.'"

Her entreaties went nowhere. "It's free!" the smiling, happy little girls repeated. Which sent Savage into paroxysms of rage and led her to conclude:

"No wonder America is getting it all wrong when it comes to government, and taxes, and policy. We all act as if the 'lemonade' or benefits we're 'giving away' is free.

And so the voters demand more -- more subsidies for mortgages, more bailouts, more loan modification and longer periods of unemployment benefits."

What's strange and dispiriting is that Savage is far from alone in loading lemonade stands -- and by implication, our children -- with this kind of econo-moral baggage. Last year, the wind-up dolls of Fox & Friends decided to interview two little girls -- sisters -- about their lemonade stand as a way to hammer home Fox News' insistent, purposeful misinterpretation of President Obama's "You didn't build that" comment. A more repellent and cringeworthy display would have been hard to find, at least during that half-hour of the show.

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Brian Kilmeade, one of Fox & Friends' three animatronic hosts, introduced the girls by saying they had built their lemonade business "without any help." He then asked them: "How did you feel about the president saying you needed help to start this business?"

The spokesperson of the pair -- at 7, three years older than her business partner -- answered that the president's remarks were "rude." But then, apparently going off script, she added: "We worked very hard to build this business, but we did have help." Of course, their parents supplied all the ingredients and whatnot, and perhaps tried to explain the concept of "money" to the younger of the pair. But both Kilmeade and the girls kept referring to the parents as "investors," making them sound like the general partners at KKR, poring over the kids' business plan and grilling them on their business model.

In other words, this was a children's lemonade stand just like any other, and not a particularly good example of up-by-the-bootstraps protocapitalism among the Doc McStuffins set.

The theory here is that a lemonade stand (or a Girl Scout Cookie business, or a child-published home newsletter, or a 5-cent psychiatry booth) should be thought of as a total-immersion lesson in cutthroat capitalism. It rests on the presumption that such a lesson is even possible for kids who are young enough to run lemonade stands. It's not.

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In arguing against the idea of lemonade stands as junior MBA programs, Michal Lemberger, writing in Slate, declares that the stands "don't teach entrepreneurship" because not every element of true capitalism is present:

[Customers] 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.

But even though she's taking the other side from Savage and Kilmeade, Lemberger is still working from the same faulty premise: that we should judge lemonade stands based on how fully they impart the lessons of free-market capitalism. She says they don't do so at all, but that's not true either. Do we judge the Easy Bake Oven by how fully it teaches cooking skills? Do we judge t-ball games by how well they prepare our tots for the Majors? (Well, some of us do, but we shouldn't.)

Lemonade stands should be judged by one criterion only: Did the kids have fun? Having fun -- play -- is how kids learn. And by running a lemonade stand -- even if they're giving the stuff away like Savage's little pinkos -- the kids in fact are learning about business, at the level of children. 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.

There's plenty of time for kids to learn about the more complicated and mercenary aspects of the marketplace. For now, they're interacting with customers. They're providing a service. They're "working." They're having fun. Shouldn't that be enough?

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