How to Raise an Entrepreneurial Child

Lisa Cohn didn't set out to teach her 5-year-old son about entrepreneurship. She was looking for a way to help him grieve over the death of their beloved dog. But after the Portland, OR-based mother and son wrote a children's dog book, Michael got involved in promoting and selling the book. He now makes regular guest appearances in school classrooms and events; he's even been on the TODAY show.

The experience did more than help him get over the loss of his pet. "In our case, Michael has learned about creativity, writing, editing, promoting, publicity, public speaking, problem solving and sales,” Cohn notes. "He learned that his creative ideas are valuable and important to other people. That has boosted his confidence and taught him to share his ideas. He can apply what he's learned to many areas of his life.”

Here are some ways to teach your children about entrepreneurship:

  1. Encourage them to start a product or service business. Lemonade stands may seem quaint, but they're still a great way to teach kids about business. "An entrepreneurial attitude can start with nurturing your child's ideas to offer simple services such as dog-sitting or lawn-mowing for neighbors, having a lemonade stand or yard sale, or reselling a product on eBay,” says Stephanie Weiland Knarr, a family therapist in the Washington, DC area.
  2. Participate in contests and special school programs. Look for business and invention contests, and classes that encourage kids to visualize solutions and/or businesses. Val Wright founded her first company at 15 as part of the Young Enterprise Schemein England. "There was a national competition where we had to write an annual report and present our results,” recalls the Southern California–based innovation consultant. "What I learned in those nine months far exceeded any class, exam or coursework.” Staples recently sponsored Designed by Students, a program in two schools to teach kids how to identify and solve problems, and create new product ideas, through user-centered design.
  3. Talk about value creation. Sounds like a lofty topic, but even the youngest kids can understand value. "Entrepreneurship is really about opportunity and value creation - the ability to recognize, analyze and capture opportunity in order to create value by solving problems or providing benefits,” says Bruce Bachenheimer, clinical professor of management and executive director of the Entrepreneurship Lab at Pace University in New York. "This is important for kids to learn because jobs, and more importantly meaningful careers, are much less about ‘Tell me what to do and I will do my best to accomplish it' and more about ‘What can you do for me?' - i.e., how can you create value by capturing opportunity in this position. Focus on recognizing opportunities, discussing how to analyze them, and seeing if there is some way to test how to capture them by trying some aspect of the idea in the real world.”
  4. Raise funds for charity. Teach giving alongside entrepreneurship. Wright's six-year-old daughter wanted to donate the profits from her lemonade stand to "children that don't have mommies and daddies,” Wright recalls. Together, they found a local charity that supports foster children and their families. "The first time she raised $75.55, and she asked how she could raise more next time, so I talked to her about how more people needed to know her lemonade stand was there. She developed flyers and distributed them around the neighborhood. We also picked a date when there was another event on the street. The next time she raised $188. Now that she has raised real money, not monopoly money, she can explain the meaning and importance of marketing to anyone.”

Helping kids understand how business works and the risk and reward of pursuing their own path prepares them well for life after school.

"As parents and educators, we need to expose children to the world outside of our towns and our classrooms,” explains Daniel Reilly, Staples director of design and innovation, who oversaw Designed by Students. "We must always improve, do something differently than in the past, and take risks - because in that experience we find out who we are."

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