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Capitalism lite: Are youth finance and entrepreneurship programs beneficial or burdensome?

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How do parents decide whether capitalism camps are worth it?

How do parents decide whether capitalism camps are worth it?

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SALT LAKE CITY — Summer camps are a time-honored American ritual.

Children paddle canoes, fish for bucketmouth bass and (sometimes) participate in ritual hazing. At day camps, they learn to swim, play dodgeball and come home with sunburns.

Enter a new kind of camp, perfectly suited for 21st-century America. At "capitalism camps," children learn about stock dividends, liquidity and the capital asset pricing model.

OK, maybe not those exact terms. But for an increasing number of kids across America, programs promoting financial literacy and an entrepreneurial mindset are gaining steam, whether as part of in-school curriculums or week-long summer camps.

Some emphasize basic financial competence while others prioritize entrepreneurship. It's common to cover both. Supporters preach economic empowerment. Critics argue that those bending toward the entrepreneurial extreme teach kids to commodify their life experiences. And within that criticism lies a more essential question: What values or lessons are most important in raising a child, and if you have to cultivate some over others, how important is finance?

The lessons of the lemonade stand

A few years ago, Peter Robison, a reporter who lives in Seattle, decided to explore the rise of capitalism camps for a 2016 Bloomberg piece. He’d recently helped his 5- and 3-year-old sons set up a lemonade stand. They sold cupfuls for 50 cents using whatever juice was available and made $8.

“So much of parenting feels rushed,” Robinson wrote. “For once, I thought, here was a memory that would have a satisfying, Rockwellian glow.”

But then he met Chuchi Arevalo, who runs a camp near Washington, D.C. Arevalo told Robinson that there’s so much more a lemonade stand can teach: How to advertise; how to diversify inventory; how to adjust to seasonal interests. “There’s so much potential,” he recently told the Deseret News, “to make that a more enriching experience.”

And therein lies the question at the core of what could be called the lemonade stand problem, and of so-called capitalism camps: The question of enriching versus burdening. Can’t lemonade stands, as Robison suggested, be meaningful outside of money?

Nancy Colier, a psychotherapist and author of "The Power of Off: The mindful way to stay sane in a virtual world,” has written for Psychology Today about the importance of boredom in a child’s development. She believes that, for the most part, an entrepreneurial approach and a having-fun approach are mutually exclusive.

“It’s not the time to be learning to balance a budget,” she said. “It’s a time to let the child find what they love.”

She acknowledged the stated goal of finance and entrepreneurial programs for kids — to take advantage of opportunities in the 21st-century economy — is a good one. But in practice, she fears an advantage becoming an obsession.

“It’s like every moment is a chance to become rich,” she said. “I think in the long run, that leads to despair.”

She also draws a distinction between teaching life skills and encouraging a life template.

“Starting a child that young,” she said, “is creating a mind that sees the world in a commodified way.”

The fun of finance

Arevalo denies promoting a life template, as do other organizers of similar programs.

“It doesn’t mean getting rich,” he said of his lessons. “It means financial independence.”

He also believes that kids being kids and developing an entrepreneurial mindset don’t have to be mutually exclusive. He said he’ll stop at any lemonade stand he sees to buy a drink and ask the kids a few questions about their business.

“For the most part, I get blank stares,” he said. “Rightfully so.”

Because, he acknowledged, most kids aren’t worried about the economics. They’re worried about enjoying themselves. But, he insisted, there are ways to make a lemonade stand enriching without losing the fun.

Here in Utah, Junior Achievement of Utah tries to follow that lesson on a larger scale. Its main focus is an in-school curriculum that culminates in a trip to a pretend city above the Discovery Children's Museum, where fifth-graders pick their favorite jobs from a pamphlet distributed at school and work for a day. The jobs range from Chick-fil-A to the U.S Air Force to Zions Bank. The organization also offers a brief summer equivalent program that's open to anyone. Its goal is to teach kids basic financial skills like check writing, how loans work and why and how they should save and invest their money.

The program is so popular that the organization is building a second pretend city, spokesperson Becky Harding said, and the waitlist is over 100 schools long. Sponsors, which spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to build games and engaging experiences, are also pounding on the door. (Full disclosure: The Deseret News is one of 26 companies that sponsors a storefront at JA City.)

“This just gives them reality,” Harding explained. “Just reality.”

Moolah U, based in Austin, Texas, offers the Kids and Teens Business Camp. Founder Gayle Reaume believes financial literacy and entrepreneurialism are inseparable, and the former can be learned through the latter. The experience must also be tangible and engaging. So her weeklong camp begins with “real market research” on Day 1, and on Day 2, students pitch to the “Barracuda Tank."

“They don’t even know they’re learning," she said. "They’re just happy to be making money.”

The Young Americans Center for Financial Education in Denver also offers summer camps as well as school curriculums. Spokesperson Betsy Sklar said her organization is focused on the financial literacy and entrepreneurship that define most of these programs, but she added they're "all about" providing financial vocabulary, too. She also echoed Harding and Reaume in her view that these programs are about teaching kids to identify opportunities — plain and simple.

“We want kids to make smart decisions,” she said. “There’s nothing political about that.”

Capitalism and socialism

Most programs offer some theory, but they’re not making children read "The Wealth of Nations." They take the position that America is a capitalist country, and while they believe in capitalism, their job is to teach kids to thrive within it; not to promote the system itself.

Nevertheless, The New York Times juxtaposed capitalism camps against the rising popularity of socialism among young people. All camp organizers contacted for this story insisted they’d never had kids enrolled because their parents fear socialism, and the camps haven't popped up out of panic — most have existed since long before Bernie Sanders achieved mainstream notoriety.

“If your kid wants to become socialist, that’s fine with me,” Arevalo said. “We’re apolitical.”

Still, socialism’s popularity has some politicians worried. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, for one, delivered a keynote address at this year’s Utah Economic Summit lamenting young peoples’ lack of confidence in free market capitalism.

"They worry that free market capitalism is failing and that it’s a win-lose system,” he said, “and they also believe that there’s something better out there, hence the attraction to socialism."

Their worries are the result of many factors, from the student debt bubble to 40 years of wage stagnation to growing income inequality. Capitalism camps believe that rather than turning to alternative economic systems, the proper response is educating kids to avoid debt, start businesses and engage in philanthropy — all in accordance with capitalism’s emphasis on individual opportunity. That doesn’t address the problem of income inequality or wage stagnation directly, but camp organizers believe it gives kids the best chance to overcome those aspects of the system.

Arevalo also doesn’t think “capitalism camp” is a fair characterization. Capitalism, he said, carries a connotation of greed, “for better or worse.” And even if his program does teach kids how to best navigate a capitalist system, he said it also teaches to avoid capitalism’s pitfalls.

“We live in a society that glorifies consumption,” he said. “We need to glorify savings.”