Car Washes and Girl Scout Cookies

January 15, 2018

I’m going to talk about some traditions we have with our kids in a rather stern way, so if you’re easily offended, feel free to leave now.

Giving Kids Direction

Fundraising car washes suck. Girl Scout Cookies suck too, but for different reasons.

These and similar activities are pretty common these days, and are often considered “service activities” for kids. They are considered a means for children to learn how to do some good in the world or to take some ownership over a task. Sound right?

Sounds wrong.

What they actually do is suck energy away from the innate drive that kids have to help themselves and others. In place of help and charity, these activities actually drive kids to get ready for the modern working world: you know, 40 hours a week and a boss. They teach you how to do your two pence of work for your shilling and go home. You know, a fair wage for fair work.

(And speaking of fair work.. I hope you don’t consider a bunch of soap in a bucket or a box of pre-wrapped cookies as the only viable work our kids can do. That shows what we think of them, doesn’t it? Do you think they don’t get the message we’re accidentally teaching them this way? They do, for sure.)

To some, this might sound just fine. After all, most adults do this very thing and probably haven’t given it much thought since they were in their early twenties. Unfortunately, this is another waste many of us fall into. Our early twenties are a time of life ripe with opportunity. We feel just old enough to do something interesting, but young enough to be filled with exuberant energy - a resource we don’t want to squander. We forget that the choice of a regular working career can be a decision made for dreams: usually the dream of a house and a family.

To make these decisions well, our kids and teenagers need to have decent concepts of work, ability, and service. Our culture needs to have a serious discussion about childhood, adolescence, and how we expect our kids to grow up. Both of my examples - car washes and girl scout cookies - point towards this discussion in two different ways. We’ll take them one at a time.


I’m sure you’ve all seen the crazy teenage car wash at your local gas station. You might have even let them spray down your car for a nice little donation. While it sounds like you’re helping, I think you’re actually hurting. And the adults that let the kids organize the car wash are hurting even more.

Here’s the thing: car washes typically fund an activity or a trip of some sort. Too often they seem to be cheerleading trips, but I’m sure there are plenty of others. Adults have a lot of well-meaning but rather poor logic driving the idea of kids (partially) self-funding these trips. Ideas like:

  • The kids will take it more seriously because they had to work towards it.
  • They’ll learn that sometimes you have to do something tedious to do something you want.
  • It gives them valuable time management skills for when they have a job.

Any of these reasons alone make my skin crawl, but I don’t think they’re the actual logic adults have in mind.

I think the real reason parents make kids help fund a trip is usually because the activity being funded is a waste of time and money that the parents don’t really want to pay for. It’s perceived as a waste time if the activity itself isn’t very valuable or the kids aren’t very good.

That’s not a politically correct thing to say, so it rarely gets said. But I think we can rely on proof by counter-example to show it’s true.


Let’s say my kid is working on some really awesome skill and needs some money to further it. For example:

  • Painting, and she’s invited to exhibit her work, but needs money and help mounting and preparing it
  • Programming a webapp, and she needs $40/month to deploy to a hosting environment
  • Piano, violin, or some other instrument, and she’s been invited to play at an out-of-state recital

When the time comes for any of these, I’m not going to make her go wash cars for two Saturdays. The idea sounds kind of ridiculous. She’s already incredibly busy and motivated to work on the skill itself, be it art, programming or music. So why would I take her away from working on the skill, which is the important thing? I won’t. Instead, I’m just going to GIVE HER THE MONEY, so she can be busy continuing to learn the great skills she’s interested in.

One can argue that cheerleading is not nearly as important as learning how to write, or how to program, how to do something creative, how to paint, or how to do science. It’s just true - cheerleading is not as important. I think deep down we know that, so we make our kids pay for it instead.

(Side note: I realize I’m picking on cheerleading a lot. I realize that it can help cultivate valuable life skills like leadership, teamwork, and physical ability. The problem I have with it is that it’s a secondary activity. It is, literally, on the sidelines. I’d rather have kids focus on the primary activity, whether it’s soccer, softball, rugby, lacrosse, or gymnastics. All of these also cultivate the same life skills.)

It would seem ridiculous to make a student painter raise money in some silly way to travel to an exhibit to show his portfolio. It just sounds stupid being written out.

If the skills the kids are learning are really that important or interesting, shouldn’t they just focus on the skills instead of dealing with mindless car washing? All the car wash does is take them away from the good stuff.


Of course, most carwashes aren’t used to fund the next Picasso, Zuckerburg, or Joshua Bell. Usually, the activities aren’t that valuable and the kids aren’t savants.

And you know what? That’s totally OK. Part of childhood is having an absolute blast with your friends or family. It’s about making mistakes on a stage or learning what it’s like to be on a team.

So, God forbid (just kidding), if one of my children ends up being a mediocre cheerleader and having fun, I’m still just going to GIVE HER THE MONEY, because I love her and she’s just a kid that wants to have camaraderie and be with her friends. And that’s ok, because she’s a kid.

Of course, the school or some other organization might end up organizing the car wash, with or without my donation. Would I be OK with her participating?

Not really. It’s not just that I think this kind of fundraising is unnecessary. It’s that it can be subtly and implicitly harmful. My kid doesn’t need some faux-economic lesson about earning your own way through trading your time for money. And it’s not just trading your time for money, it’s trading your time for money in a really shitty, menial way with a really shitty return on investment. There aren’t many activities with a lower profit margin per man-hour than a group manual car wash?

There’s also a difference between a fundraising car wash and an actual job that a kid might get, for instance over summer break. In the case of the summer job, there’s no “higher purpose” for which to strive. It’s just a job. But a carwash is for some external purpose (however derivative), and so implies a lesson in translating tedious work into passion, but indirectly and incorrectly. A summer job is a simpler equation, and I’d be fine with my children taking the time to make some money. I’ll hope they can use a real skill they might be developing at that job, but they’ll still learn a lot, not the least of which would be that keeping to someone else’s schedule sucks.

Bottom line, if you want to teach your kid a lesson in economics, don’t teach them that the best skill someone is willing to pay them for is remedial work with the lowest possible time-to-profit equation imaginable. We teach them this because it’s what most adults do - we trade our time for money. The difference is that most adults have some higher level of skill that allows them to “earn a living”.

I don’t want my children learning this. I don’t want them thinking about money as “earning a living” I don’t want them to think about a job as an even trade of time for money. I want them unhindered by such perspective when they enter the exuberant years of early adulthood, so that they have a full array of paths exposed and in front of them.

My kids may end up dedicating their lives to the service of others through a non-profit or a vow of poverty in the Church. They may learn how to maximize the profits of a large corporation, or develop a new product that’s valuable to millions or billions. They may just get a job, hopefully one they enjoy, and raise a wonderful family. But to properly understand their choices and to be ready for any of these, they need a paradigm of money, value, skill, and time that is, unfortunately, absent from the construct of the typical middle-class employed adult of today, through either amnesia or ignorance.


Of course, I’ve sidestepped one huge and legitimate reason for crazy fundraising activities: Need. It’s entirely possible that the money just isn’t there. I think less than 10% of this type of fundraising falls into this category, but still.. What then?

In this case, I understand why groups would go to any length to acquire the necessary resources. But I’d still rather just GIVE THEM THE MONEY. I don’t need a car wash, or cookies, or pizzas as a return. Whether it’s for value or fun, it’s worth it.

Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, friends, neighbors.. a lot will chip in. And they’ll do it for the kids, not for a pizza or some cookies. The only group you won’t hit is all of the strangers out there, admittedly a large group. It strikes me as I write this though, that more organizations that actually have a need should use Kickstarter or something similar to raise the money. If the goal amount is reasonable, and it usually is, you can probably reach the goal without wasting time on a silly fundraising activity with a horrible return on investment and a nasty, subtle, misleading economic lesson.


Service is the other direction all of this can take. And let’s be clear: service to others is incredibly important and one of the most valuable life lessons kids can learn.

These days, it’s expected that kids in school will do additional activities outside the classroom to participate in the community or to help the school, team, or organization. You know, service oriented stuff. In my day, this amounted to us having to sell magazines and pizzas. Why?

The canonical example is Girl Scout cookies. This service provides money to an organization of girls. Unfortunately, the primary thing that I and most people know about the Girl Scouts is that they sell cookies. It seems like a self-funding cycle.

What does this fundraising accomplish aside from allowing the group to organize enough to sell girl scout cookies again the next year? I did some research and found that about 10-20% of the money goes back to the local troop. 65% goes to the regional council. 25% goes to one of the two national baking companies that make all of the cookies. And it’s an $800mm business.

I’m sure the Girl Scouts do some good things, and girls today need to feel empowerment and confidence. But to most people, it’s all about the cookies, and that’s a shame.

This is also not service. Service is different. Service is about focusing completely on the other and doing something to help them. Actually, service has two sides: serving and being served, and kids need to learn both skills.

Kids should be served by their schools, by the organizations they belong to, and by those that support the skills they want to learn. They should learn that they’re being served and feel honor, respect, and gratitude. They shouldn’t be taught to pay it back (or to help pay for it), they should learn to pay it forward. Being served is about learning how to find opportunities to serve.

And when you serve others, especially as a child, I think one of the fundamental keys should be that you have to look them in the face. Service isn’t about raising money by sitting in front of a grocery store for hours reselling a box made by some national industrial food company. You should learn that service is about caring for people. You learn that by looking people in the face.

When you help handicapped kids on a field trip, you have to look them in the face. If you volunteer at a senior home, you have to look those people in the face. If you volunteer at a zoo, you have to look the animals (and humans) in the face. You have to foster a relationship that is more than dollars and cents.

The best CEOs, the rare good politicians, and any other good leader in the world knows that it’s all about people. Even if all they manage is a balance sheet, they know the point of the process. They know what’s at the end of the line. It’s about people, and you have to know how to look them in the face first.

I don’t think faux fundraising and reselling supports this at all. I don’t think this teaches our kids the right things about service. We can do better. The “Think Globally, Act Locally” line comes to mind when I consider this. We should think about making the world better and focus on what’s around us. Actually, Confucius said it even better:

To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.

Service is about putting our hearts right.

And that’s my rant on car washes and girl scout cookies. We should focus on primary skills, fun, teamwork, leadership, need, and true service.

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