What parents really mean when they tell you ‘They’re Busy’

“Thanks very much,
but we’re going to pass…”

That was the worst meeting I’d ever had. It took a ton of work just to get a meeting with a certain multinational entertainment company (represented by a talking mouse). I signed all the legal documents and rehearsed my pitch on the trip. I knew it was a long shot, but I wasn’t prepared for their explanation:

“Parents aren’t willing to do the work.”

The pitch was for Imaginary Friends, a platform for stories to come to life. I’ve spent a decade designing interactive stories and learned these lessons:

1. The bigger the audience, the less interaction you can have
2. The more creative control you have, the more you can interact

So I started looking for my Holy Grail — A repeated moment where people told stories with lots of creative control to small audiences.

And that’s when I had kids.

Looking in from the outside — the relationship between parents and kids was perfect. Parents don’t even realize it, but they’re making up stories every day. Sure they have help from ‘family traditions’ but they customize them to fit their modern life.

Now that I’m on the inside — with two kids, two pets and a partner with her own career, it feels different. It feels like I’ve triggered an avalanche made entirely of ‘To-Do Lists’ and I’ve got to scramble with every last ounce of energy to push them back and get a breath of sweet mountain air. Oh and the avalance has been continuous for ALL seven years of parenthood.

I get it. Parents are busy people.

One focus group after another paraded through our door, filled with parents in our target demographic — they all said the exact same thing:

I wouldn’t do it because it looks like a lot of work.

So I did what every wise entrepreneur does when rejected by mega-partners and customers alike.

I changed direction.

This time we redesigned Imaginary Friends around an ‘auto-pilot’ which made default choices every time a parent didn’t have time to respond. It was based on the concept of “Set it and Forget it” and the only interaction we needed with the parent was a credit card. We adapted a major children’s series to gain brand recognition and added cool new features for tablets.

It was terrible.

It was the worst of all worlds. It was an e-book that kids skipped to play the games, and a collection of short games that couldn’t hold a candle to the next kids app to the left. But the hardest part of all was that you could feel the lack of caring. Kids who picked it up understood implicitly that this was an elaborate combination lock — find the right button and get your prize.

I was devastated. I put Imaginary Friends on a shelf indefinitely.

I started to loathe the hypocrisy of ‘Pinterest Parenting’ — the one-up-man-ship of fetishizing animal-themed Bento Box school lunches and whimsical kids rooms as some form of self-inflicted guilt complex. The same exact trend that gave us body issues from magazine covers was making us feel inferior about ourselves as parents.

I was holding two conflicting ideas in my head simultaneously:

  1. Parents are too busy to add anything else to their routine
  2. You could always do more for your kids to be a better parent

Then my daughter’s tooth fell out

For the first time, the Tooth Fairy visited our home. It was a major family event — Skype with the grandparents and off to bed early. It was a memory I will never forget, because it was wonderful.

That’s when I realized — We were asking the wrong question!

If we asked “Would you commit 20 minutes to setting up this product?”, the answer was always NO. And of course it would be! That’s what our mega-partner saw in our pitch: obstacles to entertainment.

But I discovered a guaranteed YES buried inside there, and it took my daughter’s loose tooth to find it.

“Is creating a wonderful memory for your child important enough for 20 minutes of your time?”

That’s when we made the decision to differentiate. Imaginary Friends was going to require a little effort, but the results were going to be magical.

Everyone was wrong about parents. They’re not too busy for anything, if they feel it’s important. They’re using their routine as a survival technique, and they’ve become wizards of prioritization — it’s required. When you confront parents with anything new, the defenses go up because you’re about to throw them off their game. They’ve got their head above the avalanche, and your brand new idea is a tree in their oncoming path.

Can you play with me?

I’ve learned that those are loaded words. They seem to pop out of nowhere as I’m washing the dishes or sitting down for the first time today. And I love playing with my kids. But this is what he/she really means:

On the spot, can you create an activity which:

  1. Is completely original (we haven’t played it before)
  2. Is suited to my current interests (in that moment)

PLUS my requirements as a parent:

  1. Uses resources available in our home right now
  2. Instills the proper values I want to teach

This is what I call the ‘heavy lifting’ of parenting.

My career requires creativity. I design stories and games every day. It’s the classic story of the shoemaker’s children — after a long day of squeezing those creative juices, coming up with amazing play activities is hard. It’s too easy to delegate those moments to some device — a trap that felt like ‘junk food parenting’.

I was too busy to think hard in the moment about engaging my kids, but I was never too busy for my kids. I just needed someone to help me out — something with a few simple steps that created a little magic.

Parents are our ‘Mole’ on the inside

Videogames can only react to buttons or taps — they’re constrained by the data they receive. But if you consider parents as a tool for input/output, your options explode with possibilities. A note from a character can appear under a pillow at the perfect moment in the story. A scavenger hunt to find puzzle pieces hidden around your house is now a mission the story can ask of your child.

We weren’t asking parents to devote time to Imaginary Friends — we were asking them to add a creative collaborator to the times they already played with their kids. Our authors & game designers would supply the stories & games, and the parent would supply an understanding of their family.

In return, we would create little coincidences that would bring a story to life for your kids. We would do it together — as a co-conspirator, not another To-Do List. Yes it would take a few minutes every day, but you’ll look forward to them. You’ll look forward to a tiny performance in front of a tiny audience because you know that’s where the very best stories are told.