J. C. Penney, Entrepreneur
One of my favorite children's books, long out of print, is Mr. Penney: The Life of J. C. Penney in Story Form by Harry Albus (Zondervan, 1963). My kids have delighted in the story of Jim Penney's amazing success as an entrepreneur, and especially love hearing the story of his childhood. When Jim was eight years old, his father surprised him with the news that he would be assuming all of the responsibility to buy all his own clothes. Jim was initially dismayed and fearful, with no idea how he could possibly do this, but his father assured him that he would figure out a way to do it, and so he did. Even before he was a teenager, J. C. Penney was building businesses, working hard at them, and learning to treat people well in the marketplace.
But I'm a softie. My kids don't buy all their own clothes until age 13, but they do start buying some of their own clothes, with their own earned money, as young as 6 or 7 years old. We don't give our kids allowances and rarely pay for normal work at home, or even special projects for the care of our home, but here are some of the things that my kids have done from ages 6-14 to make money.
- collecting cans and metal recycling
- repairing things and reselling them
- pollinating soybeans
- de-tasseling corn
- crocheting hats and scarves
- finding valuable books to resell
- reptile breeding
- helping in older siblings' businesses
- helping in parents' businesses
- installing flooring
- refinishing decks
- yard work
- repairing clothing
Kids learn to be frugal when they experience the effort and ingenuity of making money, not on a task especially invented for kids, but by looking carefully for a need to meet, or a want to supply, and filling that. I teach my children that business is one of the best ways to apply the Golden Rule. When they create a good product or service and present it in a winsome way, people will want it more than they want the money that it costs, and that's fair and good, all around.
When my older children were small, I used every Friday morning from April to October going to garage sales to find their clothing, shoes, and educational supplies, or rather, to find almost everything that they needed after food and shelter. I probably didn't buy a single Christmas or birthday gift at retail from the time my eldest daughter was one until she was about ten years old--and I had seven children by then.
When I would take all of my children out on Friday mornings 15-20 years ago, people would often ask why they weren't in school. And I would always answer, "Oh! They are in school. This is their economics class." And that's exactly what it was. This is how they learned to save, and shop. Today, most of my children greatly prefer the incredible breadth of clothing selection, low prices, and high quality that can be found in a thrift store over the limited selection, high prices, and lower quality at Wal-Mart or Target.
Children take a lot of pride in work well done, for profit. Every time we enter one of the local pet stores, one of my sons still beams and stands a little straighter. When he was just eight years old, he helped install new flooring in the aquarium section, legally, as an independent contractor. Child labor isn't always a bad thing. He had more fun and still has more joy in this one project than in a lot of the hard work and energy expenditure that we classify as "play." My littlest kids went out under our trees a couple of years ago and spent all day, every day for a few weeks, digging a "mine." They'd come in as sweaty and grimy as any child forced into the coal mines in a previous century, but delighted beyond belief with an interesting rock or a set of old, rusty nail clippers they'd found. And they'd daily measure their progress in depth attained, filled with joy.
There's no harm, and a lot of good in harnessing that kind of energy for the benefit of others in a little free enterprise.
By the way, one of my favorite memories of those early economics classes is driving out to the sales one morning in a big old station wagon packed with children and my two eldest daughters in a rear-facing back seat. As the yellow school pass passed us in the opposite lane, my little five-year-old surprised me by yelling at the top of her lungs, "YOU MEAN OLD SCHOOL BUS! YOU LEAVE THOSE CHILDREN ALONE! THEY WANT TO BE WITH THEIR MOM!")