I was surprised recently when my 6th grader asked me for fundraising ideas for the student council. This is a kid who’s been bringing in her own income since preschool when she would display her artwork in her bedroom, priced and ready for sale. Visitors would walk out clutching drawings of wild-haired stick figures or rectangular horses eating tulips. She stayed behind, counting her money like a tiny Scrooge McDuck in pink plastic barrettes.
She’s never had difficulty scheming ways to raise money, while I stretch the limits of my financial acumen whenever I cash a check. When my son was born I opened a savings account for him, and he opened up vast new markets for his big sister to exploit. For seven years now, she’s treated him not as a brother but as a customer. Once she leased him a board game—an agreement I discovered when he failed to return it on time and I overheard her explaining the $3 late fee to him. Then there was the spring when you couldn’t brush against a tree branch without knocking loose a shower of gypsy moth caterpillars. My daughter sold one of the creatures to her brother’s playmate, convincing the girl it would make an adequate substitute for the dog her parents wouldn’t let her have.
In summer my daughter would expand her sales territory to the entire neighborhood, turning the sidewalk in front of our home into a flea market where you could buy everything from paper-chain necklaces to manicures. She was single-handedly responsible for the Instant Jell-O craze that hit our neighborhood when she insisted we spoon it into plastic cups to replace the lemonade we ran out of. Before long, there was an Instant Jell-O stand at the end of every other driveway, and my daughter started asking questions about trademark rights.
While her savings account grows larger each year, I feel fortunate every time I answer the phone and there isn’t a creditor on the line. So why, given her talent for earning money and my complete lack of skill in this area, was she asking me for help with the student council fundraiser?
Turns out it’s because she’s been watching me help out with PTO and other fundraisers. She has witnessed firsthand the difference between earning money for yourself and raising money for something bigger than yourself. She’s seen how a school without a playground or a classroom short on books can make dollar signs spring up in my eyeballs and bills fly into my outstretched hands.
That she asked me for fundraising advice was my first clue that my daughter has been paying attention to the transformative power of contributing to the common good. Isn’t that the way parenthood is? You mindlessly go about your business and your kids are watching the whole time. They’re fitting everything you do into a sort of giant jigsaw puzzle that, when complete, will show the world and their place in it.
Recently she asked the question all parents like me dread: “Mom? How does someone become a millionaire?” I stammered, eventually settling on business school. “Get your MBA, then start your own company or work your way up to CEO,” I told her.
Then I spun my answer into more familiar territory. “Once you’re CEO, you’ll have an obligation to use some of the company’s profits to make the world a better place.” She looked at me curiously. “Will it be my money I’m giving away?” she asked. “No, the company’s.” Her face brightened, then darkened at my follow up: “But you’ll donate some of your personal millions to charitable causes, of course.”
She didn’t answer—all the more reason for me to continue working on fundraisers. Hopefully, she’ll keep watching.
Sharron Kahn Luttrell volunteers for parent groups at two schools in Mendon, Mass.