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Is Your Child an Entrepreneur?

Should children get into business early to develop entrepreneurial flair?

Key points

  • Since the Victorian era, parents have strived to ensure their children enjoy childhood unburdened by the responsibilities of making a living.
  • However, in some developing countries where the income is lower, children are forced to work to help support their families.
  • Young entrepreneurs often want to work at a young age, which has its advantages and costs.

Many entrepreneurs start young, whether that means selling lemonade from a roadside stand or trading game cards online. Is it a good idea to encourage the acquisitive youngster?

The received idea in developed countries is that children should not be involved in business and that they should be allowed to enjoy a childhood unperturbed by the responsibilities of making a living. That is seen as the responsibility of parents. There is probably no society where children contribute more to parents than parents give to children.

Separating childhood and business

Matters are quite different in many developing countries where incomes are lower and where a child’s work seems to be an essential contribution to the household economy. This phenomenon was dramatized in the movie Eye in the Sky, which dealt with the moral implications of drone warfare. A young girl was tasked with selling bread that her mother baked, and she was seen as potential collateral damage in a drone strike on terrorists in Nairobi, Kenya.

The coffee business in West Africa is largely dependent upon child labor. This is a cause of concern in Amsterdam, where much of the coffee is imported. City leaders are considering the replacement of coffee merchandising with another form of commerce that does not use children. If they do, those children, and their parents, may starve.

Child labor is banned in developed countries but is used in most agricultural societies. Separating children from commerce is fairly recent, and the concept of childhood as a special time of free exploration and development is the product of Victorian England when writers like Charles Dodson began penning books that catered exclusively to a child’s fanciful sensibility.

Ever since there has been a strong inclination to make childhood special. This means separating children from the crass world of work and commerce. Is this always a good idea? Should children have more preparation for the rigors of the adult work world? Or should we make an exception for those individuals who are strongly motivated to engage in the economy as child entrepreneurs?

The child entrepreneur

Children are generally prohibited from gainful employment in developed countries. The main objectives of such laws are to prevent child exploitation by business owners and to foster an environment where the main objective of children is education.

Although children cannot work legally, except under tight restrictions, they can, and do, start businesses. Some of these enterprises are highly successful and highly profitable.

Successful child entrepreneurs are problem-solvers. They identify some real-world problems and start a business with the intention of solving them. Many children set up lemonade stands in summer and raise pocket money for themselves. This is all very well, but it is not going to attract venture capital.

A child entrepreneur tries to add something original and distinctive. It might be novel flavors or eye-catching colors. One enterprising young candle maker shook up the feminine world of scented candles by adding scents liked by men, such as campfire and sawdust. This product flourished under the ManCans label.

In addition to a problem-solving orientation, child entrepreneurs tend to be highly independent and are accustomed to ironing out problems by themselves.

Such tough-minded qualities are lifelong assets, and they may explain why a minority of children are drawn to working on independent enterprises.

So much for the benefits of child entrepreneurship. What about the downside of a regular childhood experience getting missed?

The social cost of a “lost childhood”

If children are serious about developing a business enterprise, it can be argued that an early focus on making money robs them of the carefree social experiences that an ideal childhood brings.

There are two good counterarguments. The first is that business acumen is a valuable social skill in itself. Very few children are strongly focused in this direction, just as there are relatively few youngsters who make creative arts, such as painting or musical composition, the center of their lives. If we can say that some children have an unusual entrepreneurial flair, why not encourage this form of creativity that is surely as socially useful as the arts?

The second argument is that we live in a materialistic society where success is often measured in dollars. If money is so critically important to adult life, why should young entrepreneurs not be allowed to prepare for this adult world?

Even if we ignore the value of individual talents and the relevance of business skills to adult life and do little to encourage young entrepreneurs, they are temperamentally inclined to forge ahead anyway.

There is a basic conflict between the altruism with which parents support children and their being active in commerce where greed rules. In general, though, young entrepreneurs succeed because they want to solve a practical problem in a new way, and not just because they are greedy.

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