Lemonade and beyond

When I was nine, I wanted to go to theater camp. I was determined to become an actor and I’d taken all the related classes and workshops that were available in my hometown.  I’d been in all the plays I could get into and I wanted something that seemed only to be available somewhere else.

At first it looked as though I was going to be able to go, but then something happened with my family’s budget (I don’t know exactly what) and my parents faced the unpleasant task of telling me it wasn’t going to work. I asked, my parents said they’d try, and then ultimately they made the decision that it wasn’t prudent given the family finances at the time.

I’ve never asked why I couldn’t go because I know my parents well enough to know that if there was any way they could have sent me they would have.  It’s likely that my staying home that summer meant that we all got to continue eating and living in our house.  I don’t harbor any ill will toward them or the decision.

What I realize now, though, is that there was a possible piece missing from the scenario that would likely not have resulted in a different outcome with respect to camp attendance, but might have given me a different outlook for that experience and future ones like it.

What if instead of “Sorry, we can’t do it,” my parents had said to me “We don’t have the money for your camp in the budget right now. Here’s how much it costs, and here’s how much we can pay of it.  Let’s see if we can think of a way to come up with the rest together, and then figure out if we have enough time to do it before the money’s due for your camp.”

Why not?  To avoid a possible second round of disappointment?  I think that’s why we don’t tend to have this kind of conversation with kids.  We feel terrible, if we find ourselves in a situation where we can’t give them whatever it is they want or need, so we break the news quickly and then change the subject (often with a trip to the ice cream shop, or an extended allowance for screen time; anything that says we’re sorry that’s beyond words).

It’s a missed opportunity, though – a missed opportunity to invite participation and collaboration.  The suggestion to work together on a fundraising effort might result in further disappointment if the goal is still not met, but it will also send the message that kids can have agency in the course of their own lives.   They are not at the mercy of adult circumstance and conclusion. (And really, it’s not likely that there’ll be more disappointment; it just won’t be over with as soon.)

Let’s say it’s fifty additional dollars you need to close the gap on a set of Legos.  (And this example can be mapped onto items and experiences with any number of decimal places; colored pencils, iPods, sports camps, pianos, trips overseas; the scope will of course vary from family to family and child to child.) You and your child sit down and map out a plan for how to gather the additional funds.  She makes suggestions, you make suggestions, you each share any concerns or ideas you have about the various suggestions.  You may be surprised by her suggestions. One might well be “have a lemonade stand,” because kids learn early that lemonade is more or less the understood boundary of young earning potential.  (Adults tend to get uneasy thinking of kids doing any more “work” than what’s involved in lemonade sales, so we limit our imaginations to the lemonade, even though it’s very possible for kids to earn money by other entirely safe, non-exploitative means that don’t sacrifice education.)  But she might also say “How much would we save if I only had one scoop instead of two the next time we get ice cream?” or “There are a lot of toys I don’t use anymore, maybe I could have a yard sale and sell some of them,” or “Maybe I could sell the cards I’ve been making with my photos,” or even “How much do you have to have to invest in the stock market?”  Kids tend to be more creative and think farther outside of the usual than adults do. The way you’re likely to be of most service is by helping troubleshoot any ideas that are good but may be tricky to carry out.  Together you decide when and where to start, whose help you’ll enlist, and other logistical details.  You put some things in the calendar.  You choose a time frame for completing the plan.

The end of that time frame comes, and maybe the goal is met, maybe it’s not met.  Maybe it’s exceeded, or maybe your child has lost interest in the Legos.  Maybe she’s decided she’d like a bigger or different set after all and you return together to the drawing board to renegotiate and strategize together.

Regardless of the financial outcome, this child has the experience of being included, of being treated like a participant and partner, of confronting the actual financial realities of making a purchase, of weighing the relative costs of raising money for something, of working with someone else toward a common goal… The list of likely benefits is long, and they’re different benefits from the ones available when we tell kids they can save up their “own” money for something.  Saving is of course a useful skill and lesson, but for most kids it entails mostly inaction as opposed to action. Including them in the generation of funds offers another set of benefits, not the least of which is that instead of “you’re on your own if you want this,” they hear “we’re in this together, let’s see what we can accomplish.”

The cost of these benefits may feel high at the moment when we realize that we can’t just say a quick yes (especially when the item or experience requested is something we know is going to be of great benefit to the child).  But if we find it in ourselves to move through that discomfort into the realm of collaborative strategy, we can facilitate great growth and agency.

And once we’ve done it, we’ve increased the chances that kids will come to us not with “Can I have a/Can I go to…” but with “Can we see if we can come up with the money for me to…” What an advantage that could be when later they’re out on their own, finding their ways through the world…

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4 Responses

  1. This reminded me of a teen in our neighborhood who was accepted at a very well-thought-of (serious) music camp for the summer, but the family could not afford to send him. Instead they started a custom-made hula hoop “store” in the park and sold these really awesome hoops and established a hula hooping group in the park that met on Sundays and Wednesdays, and they eventually made a website and got a stand at the weekly farmer’s market, and they even made some to donate to a recreation center for kids in need. He went to the camp, and he is now funding his college education.

  2. Excellent suggestions.

  3. This is a wonderful reminder that kids are capable of far more than most adults expect. I really love the suggestion to let kids come up with ways to get the things they want instead of automatically saying no just because you can’t get it for them right away. Kids need to know that they don’t have to always rely on adults to get the things they want or need.

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