In Defense of Lemonade Stands
A few weeks ago I was at a farmer’s market trying to have one of those small-town peaceful experiences, drinking coffee and eating a bagel on a Sunday morning in late June. My mom was asking me to hold her coffee and Wally was dropping his bagel and there was a bit of anxiety at first over the chairs—the one I was sitting on was being eyed by the landscape artist selling his rural landscape paintings. I was trying to ask him, pointing to my chair, mouthing the words...Is this yours? and he just looked back at me with an irritated face like What are you saying?. Wally was handing me stuff like a water bottle and sunscreen and along come two kids, a girl and boy, maybe about 7 years old, asking if you want to buy cake pops Oreo with sprinkles brownie chocolate chip homemade marshmallow pops… They’re slurring their words and holding out a box…clearly selling something, hard to see what under all this bunched-up wax paper.
I kind of felt on the spot, there, can't say no, and it is a nice even though it's kind of like one more thing and I still didn't know if I needed to relinquish the chair. So my mom and I were both reaching for our wallets in a kind of distracted, maybe harried, way, when the girl said, “We’re raising money for a woman with cancer on our street” and we’re both like, “Oh, why didn’t you say that in the first place? Then of course" and we picked out a few different treats.
The kids moved on, approaching other strangers, many of whom gave them the brush-off. It always sort of bothers me when people say, “No I don’t want any” to kids selling lemonade when the point isn’t whether you want it or not. No one really wants a half a plastic cup of crappy lukewarm lemonade from made a mix with not enough mix.
But in the past I’ve mostly said yes to kids selling lemonade or homemade cookies because I want to be nice, and, less nobly, because I feel awkward saying no. Since I've been thinking more about Robert Putnam's ideas for re-building communities lately, it now seems obvious that something as simple as buying a 50 cent lemonade from a local kid supports that goal, in however tiny a way. We really should patronize these kinds of efforts regardless of whether they fall into the category of fundraising for a good cause or just stuffing the coiffeurs of already rich kids so they can buy more plastic toys made in China (though of course it’d be great if that’s not what they do with it).
At the farmer's market, the kids had walked over by themselves from a nearby street. A sight that was commonplace a generation ago (kids walking around by themselves) is now pretty rare, so that in itself is remarkable and worth encouraging. Plus it's not easy to walk up to strangers, no matter how cute you are. The kids were shy and obviously a bit nervous. They were pushing themselves outside their comfort zone to participate in the community a little bit. Adults--especially the ones complaining about how kids don't say hello or make eye contact anymore--should reward that.
I asked a friend about it a few days later, as I pulled to the side of the road to buy lemonade from a couple of preteens in front of a giant brick house. She said (privately to me) that she tends to ignore these sorts of ventures, thinking, why should I give money to these rich kids?
But even if they are rich, that good fortune, like the crappy lemonade, isn't really the point. Kids sitting outside in the hot sun waving at passersby all day with hopefully a card table and handwritten sign rather than a $280 lemonade stand, is really kind of a cool thing. First, they are working, so even if they end up keeping the money and their families don't need it, they did earn it, which is better than being handed it. If they're lucky their parents will insist they get reimbursed for supplies, so they'll get a real life lesson about profit. Plus they're doing something on their own, without too much parental oversight. And they are spending time outside. They're greeting people. They're taking part in the community, helping to reverse the trends described by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone where he writes: "Weakened social capital is manifest in the things that have vanished almost unnoticed--neighborhood parties and get-together with friends, the unreflective kindness of strangers, the shared pursuit of the public good rather than a solitary quest for private goods."
Kids working lemonade stands are facing rejection--the many people who pass or drive right by without so much as a wave. In the world governed by hyperparents afraid to let their kids feel even the slightest disappointment (and therefore never letting them learn how to deal with it), this is important too. Suppose the kids spend hours out there and come home with two pitchers still full to the top of that crappy lemonade? That's okay, too. Part of childhood, the prevailing parenting style seems to have forgotten, is learning to deal with not getting what you want. Being handed lemons, so to speak.
But hopefully lots of neighbors will stop and say hello and feel awkward taking back fifty cents but also wonder if it's weird to leave it there as a tip and if that undermines the real-ness of what the kids are doing (or maybe that's just me...) and happily slurp back the nice little cup of lemonade.
Either way, here are these little kids tearing themselves away from from the siren call of organized sports and video games to carry on a simple tradition passed down from generations. Among the cars racing by, the rushed passersby spilling their coffee, the disconnection and isolation of suburban sprawl or in the quiet of empty urban streets where kids are no longer kick cans or sit on stoops, these resilient kids are hoping to create one little part of a little village, trying to uphold their part of a social contract, with a rickety table and a handwritten sign.