It’s All About the Spark

The caregiver carried the crying infant from under his armpits in her outstretched arms. She plopped the child to sit in the middle of the room where the surprised mom was in the midst of a phone call with a client. Without a word, the caregiver simply turned and left. The mom braced the phone against her shoulder and raced to comfort her child, all the while maintaining a calm and professional tone so as not to let the client know that a childcare crisis was unfolding during a sales call. It’s a scenario that might resonate with any mom who works and is trying to find a sane, guilt-free balance between raising a family and building a business or career.

Meet Melissa

Melissa Bernstein, co-founder and CEO of Melissa & Doug, the award-winning toy company with headquarters in Wilton, Conn., was the mom in that challenging moment. Her first child (now 25) was a baby, the company was in its infant stage, and she and her husband Doug were furiously working out of their home marketing their first toy, the textured Fuzzy Farm Puzzle. The caregiver never came back, nor did dozens of others over the years. In addition to building one of the most beloved and iconic toy companies in the world, Bernstein is first and foremost a mom to six children, now ages 11 through 25. It’s inevitable that Bernstein would have her share of bad experiences with childcare over the years.

Bernstein says raising children and a company at the same time requires 24/7 attention and good childcare is critical for working parents. “Childcare is a career option and if you find someone who finds joy in caring for children then your child is going to feel that. I’m fortunate that we did eventually find caregivers we love and trust and who remain part of our family today,” says Bernstein. “Many people can love your kids – its OK, the more love they get the better, whether it’s from you or someone else, love is love.”

Following her passion

Bernstein is the creative force behind the company founded 31 years ago. Although not formally trained as a toy designer, Bernstein has the vision, and frankly, the joy for creating toys and play experiences that have helped propel the company to generate more than $450 million in annual revenues and introduce a staggering 100 to 200 new products every year. Not only that, Bernstein and her husband, who have been married for more than 30 years, maintain a busy home that according to Bernstein, “is always the house where their children’s friend’s congregate.”

Bernstein didn’t start out with the intention of designing toys, but she always had a vibrant imagination. “Creation always was and is a salvation for me,” she says. “Whenever I am challenged by angst, I channel that into creation.”

But after she graduated from college, she did not follow a path into the arts or a design field, rather she began working in a large investment bank. She and her now husband were already dating and both found themselves deeply dissatisfied with their post-graduate lives on the professional track. Bernstein especially missed the spark and energy of a more creative lifestyle. They decided they didn’t belong in that world and would together take the risk of starting their own business. They agreed to do something they felt good about and that benefitted children. They landed on toys. Their first toy was the Fuzzy Farm Puzzle the first in their iconic line of wooden puzzles, which was notable because it was covered in colorful fuzzy textures – think woolly for sheep!

Challenges and rewards of a mom/entrepreneur

As far as the elusive work/life balance that mothers seek, Bernstein is clear that she has had to be OK with giving up certain things in order to be the best parent she could be while continuing to grow and flourish her company. Bernstein made a decision from the beginning that she wasn’t going to feel guilty about building the company as well as her family.

“I always dreamed of having a large, boisterous family and love nothing more than a full house with incessant activity and laughter. Combining work and parenting is never easy or ‘perfect,’ so I’ve needed to accept the fact both will ultimately suffer somewhat in that I cannot give 100% to either,” says Bernstein. “I have been intentional to rabidly spend every single moment available with my children outside of work.” She never goes out with friends on weeknights, never attends fundraisers and events, nor joins committees with meetings, travel, or works on nights and weekends. “I try to be home for dinner every single night and put them to bed. I also believe quality trumps quantity and make certain the time I spend with them is focused and impactful and they get my full, undivided attention,” she says. “It takes sacrifice to not prioritize personal friendships and other leadership roles outside Melissa & Doug above family, but it is so important to me to be present throughout their childhoods that it is a small price to pay to be available and impactful in their lives.”

Bernstein says she hears parents complaining about work and feeling guilty, but she believes that creates a conflict for both the parent and the child. The kids see that their mom is torn and learns to devalue her work. Bernstein believes that her enthusiasm for her work spills over to her children and provides a positive road map for them.

“As women if we are able to choose to work out of the house and believe it is important to our sense of self and fulfillment, then that is the price we pay. We must communicate our passion for our work to our families and share the joys of working with them in order to be a role model.”

Taking risks and having courage to fail

Bernstein thinks of all her toy creations as her children. If a toy doesn’t catch on and is removed from the marketplace, she places one of them lovingly on the “failure shelves” in her office. This way she can continue looking and thinking about how to make a change that will improve the toy and give it new life.

The company does not care about trends and market research. “We don’t do what every other toy company does, we don’t follow fads and haven’t moved into technology-based toys,” says Bernstein. “Instead, we look backwards at play patterns that kids have loved for centuries that may have gotten dusty and need an update.” (Think: transforming paper dolls into double-sided, gender neutral, multicultural stand-up magnetic figures with companion pets, clothing, accessories, and a carrying case.)

Bernstein’s children are her most discerning critics and have served as an in-house focus group. Although they started their business while dating and before having children, once born, the kids became part of the business as aggressive toy testers. “I always conveyed I wanted them to be ruthlessly honest and never say positive things just to make me happy and they took that to the extreme by rarely saying anything complimentary and only pointing out ways to make them better!” says Bernstein. “Playing with my children helps me understand the mindset of kids of all ages and truly absorb how to create better products that captivates their minds and possesses enduring play value. Many of my ideas came from watching them play and observing the play patterns that most engaged them, and also flaws in existing products that didn’t offer a profound experience.”

Accepting our children for who they are

“Doug and I are heartbroken that childhood used to be so much freer,” says Bernstein. “The advent of competition and achievement cultures, where our kids are judged by their scores and grades; the advent of technology; the creation of the playdate; fears of childhood abduction, has created a culture where parents are afraid of letting their children fail or to even have unscheduled time.”

As she sees it parenting skills continue to decline. “Helicopter parenting has turned into snow plow parenting, which is much worse. Parents now get in front of their children chasing away obstacles and protecting them from the sting of failure. All of this is well intentioned but it works against the child. But I don’t want to sound preachy – it’s so hard and I grapple with it every day.”

Bernstein confesses to falling into the trap of pressing her children for high academic achievement. “I like to think that I didn’t put pressure on them, but I felt the pressure to do so deeply.” The irony of this is that while her four oldest children performed well in school and were academically inclined, her two youngest children, respectively in grade 6 and 8, are not traditional learners. Bernstein has had to consciously shift her parenting style and outlook to encourage their differences.

“Life is about embracing who you are,” says Bernstein. “The world doesn’t herald kids who don’t do well in school or that fail. That is a shame because we are potentially stifling the ability and confidence of those who might be the visionaries.”

Just let them play

Bernstein’s two youngest children reinforced her feeling that all kids should be allowed more space and time to be curious, to imagine, and make discoveries in their own way. She feels strongly that the rote learning and memorization expected of our children in our test-taking school culture is not productive and won’t teach our children to be innovators in the future. The main tenet behind Melissa & Doug’s toy creations is that playtime is critical to learning and children aren’t getting enough of it. Unstructured play encourages children to solve problems, learn critical thinking skills, and build imagination – all of which will lead them to one day become innovative, creative adults.

“Play doesn’t go on your resume. No one says, today my son built a great pillow fort, but they should,” says Bernstein. “Playing helps children find the extraordinary in the everyday. It allows them to see possibilities and potential. A wooden rectangle block isn’t just a block – it could be a train, a rocket ship, or a cupcake. Play allows children to see the world with different eyes and become thinkers.”

Melissa & Doug is so committed to putting play back into childhood, that they are launching a national grass roots program to help parents fight against tech overuse and better understand the value of free time and open-ended play. They recently hired their first Chief Mission Officer to help them be partners to parents and “be the voice that says it’s OK to play.”

Find your spark

Bernstein uses the word “spark” often. She uses it to refer to what it feels like when an idea for a toy hits her, when she sees the way a child plays with a certain toy, when she feels her creative energy building toward some new discovery or design. For her, spark means passion and innovation.

“Everything is built on a spark,” she says. “To do anything meaningful, you need to be passionate about it, whatever that is. If you find your spark, then I say go for it. Explain it to your kids. You will be an amazing role model because of it.”

Corinne Zola is a founder of the Westchester Children’s Museum and a current board member. She and her husband are the proud parents of two who grew up playing with Melissa & Doug toys!

Melissa & Doug opens first interactive play space gift shop

The Westchester Children’s Museum, located in Rye is partnering with the iconic toy company Melissa & Doug to open the first-of-its-kind experiential play space and gift shop. The unique partnership between the Museum and Melissa & Doug reflects their mutual missions to use open-ended, unstructured play to stimulate creative thinking and build problem-solving skills. The new 400-square-foot Gift Shop at the Westchester Children’s Museum opens December 2019 in time for holiday shopping and is part of a larger expansion project that increases the Museum’s exhibit and program areas to 20,000 square feet.

“Our new gift shop will be absolutely unique among museum gift shops in that it takes what is normally a souvenir-buying experience and transforms it into an extension of the interactive activities that make a children’s museum so fun,” says Leta Wong, operations manager and exhibit chair at the Westchester Children’s Museum. “We are excited to partner with Melissa & Doug in this new initiative because they share our belief in the power of play to build creative lifelong learners.”

The Gift Shop features a variety of play experiences where children can pretend to be a vet, a gardener, a chef, a caregiver, a train conductor, a doctor, an astronaut, a princess, a magician, or anything their imagination can conjure. The Gift Shop is currently open Wednesdays through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., but hours may be extended during the holidays so check the Museum’s website, DiscoverWCM.org.