Playful Parenting: Bluey as a Model of Child-Centered Play
by Dr. Emily Dowdell

You may or may not yet be aware of Bluey, a television show designed for preschool children. Bluey is an animated series about the playful adventures of a family of blue heeler dogs. The show premiered in Australia in October 2018 and in our home in the summer of 2020, and we absolutely love it.

In graduate school, I learned about the integral role of play in how children process emotions and work through the many challenges they face. Children need play. It is often their only outlet to express the feelings they cannot put into words. Play helps children learn how to share their inner life, regulate their emotions, and heal their wounds. 

In an episode called Daddy Putdown, Chili (Mum) goes to a baby shower and leaves the girls in Bandit (Dad)’s capable hands. Bluey is stuck on missing her mum. Bandit pulls out all the games in an effort to distract Bluey from her feelings. The games only take her mind off them for a little while. Seeing that Bluey is still struggling, Bandit gets down on her level:

Bluey: Please, can you tell her to come back?

Bandit: Okay. [dialing] It’s just that she was really look forward to this baby shower.

I don’t understand it. Why would you want to watch some stinky baby have a shower?

Bluey: Daaad! That’s not what a baby shower is!

Bandit: Yeah, it is. Mum and all her friends go into town and give some dirty baby a wash.

Bluey: That’s not a baby shower! You don’t really think that, do you?

Bandit: Well, then, what is it?

Bluey: It’s a party for a lady who has a baby in her belly!

Bandit: Really?

Bluey: You know that.

Bandit: Are there presents?

Bluey: Yeah! But they’re all for the baby.

Bandit: Ohh! What presents does a baby want?

Bluey: Oh, I don’t know. Like bibs and rattles and stuff.

Bingo: Yeah, and onesies.

Bluey: Oh, yeah. Babies love onesies.

Bandit: And are there games?

Bluey: Oh, yeah. I think so. Like Guessing the Baby Name game and stuff.

Bingo: Yeah, and Pregnant Lady Obstacle Course.

Bandit: Well. There you go. It’s ringing.

Bluey: Wait. Hang the phone up.

Bandit: Oh. Okay… Hey where you going?

Bluey: I think I thought of a game.

Just then, Bluey’s face lights up and she runs off. The show follows her into another room where she reenacts the evenings events, role-playing the mother and casting her younger sister Bingo as her daughter. She coaches Bingo to be sad when she climbs into her cozy coupe to head off for the party. She has all her little dolls set up in a circle for the baby shower and rushes in apologizing for being late. She explains to her dolls that she was late because “Snowdrop” was sad that she had to leave. She then plays out the baby shower. When she returns home in her cozy coupe, she emerges from her play ready to spend time with dad.

I could go on about the many valuable lessons for children and parents packed into these short episodes. If you want to see a mom hit the limit of her frustration tolerance, re-center, and reengage with her kids – watch the episode Sticky Gecko. My personal favorite is Sleepytime, when Bingo dreams about being a big girl… in space!  At one-point in the dream, she flies up to the sun and perches on a nearby planet, taking in the sun’s light. After basking, she says, “I have to go, I’m a big girl now.” She then hears her mother’s voice say to her, “Remember, I’ll always be here for you, even if you can’t see me, because I love you,” with the majestic musical theme Jupiter from Holst’s The Planets reaching a climactic crescendo.

The thing is, Bluey is not just a children’s show. It is a show that reveres the small moments, fills the minds and hearts of children with wonder and imagination, is packed with meaningful life lessons, and can be inspirational to parents and children alike! In another post, I may write about the significance of the portrayal of an engaged father-figure in children’s television, but that’s for another day. It is truly amazing what they manage to accomplish in just seven-minute episodes. Most importantly, Bluey is an homage to the power of play.

Let Dragons Be Evil
by Dr. Emily Dowdell

The heroic protagonist fights the evil dragon and rescues those in mortal danger. We are attracted to these stories and the excitement of the challenge. It can be a source of hope when we struggle in our own battles to see the stark victory of good over evil. In the last thirty years, many children’s stories have drifted away from these themes. Our legends are less legendary, the line between the heroes and villains has become blurred.  But there’s a developmental reason that we need exaggerated all-good or all-bad characters in children’s stories. Children need to be able to recognize what is good and what is bad, to develop their conscience, and it starts in these extremes.

The hope is that child-logic, which tends to categorize in black-and-white terms, is outgrown by adulthood. As the brain develops, it becomes more capable of discernment and critical thinking. With that comes the ability to recognize the multifaceted reality that no one is truly all-good or all-bad. However, the all-good and all-bad characters of our childhood stories help us as adults develop the extreme constructs from which to evaluate others in a more nuanced and compassionate way. Without them, there are no moral absolutes we can no longer appreciate the difference between virtuous and vicious behavior. In a General Audience in 1999, John Paul II predicted that a society with no moral framework would end up in a state of confusion. He said, “Evil exerts a frightening power of attraction which causes many types of behavior to be judged ‘normal’ and ‘inevitable’. Evil then grows, having devastating effects on consciences, which become confused and even incapable of discernment.”

There is an attractive element to retelling the story of the Disney villains in a light that makes them seem more human. These characters become less of a caricature of evil and much more relatable. Perhaps the adults who grew up watching Disney movies felt a sense of pity for the misunderstood “bad guy” or wanted to find a way to redeem the parts of themselves or close others that they saw in these evil characters. I know I did. I imagined that the evil sultan Jafar of Aladdin, while ambitious for the throne, was really out to protect Jasmine from a thief and a liar. I reversed the hero and the villain in this and many other stories growing up to try to make sense of the good and bad in my own story.

I am still extremely sympathetic to a good redemption arc, but I have come to realize that redemption only occurs if we retain a sense of what is good and bad. To suggest that all people are all good all of the time is simply untrue. It does not make space for the terribly evil actions that ordinary people can knowingly, or unknowingly, commit. I have had my utopian fantasies where I live in a world where every person feels completely understood, loved, and valued as they were created. Seeing individuals in my family long for that kind of affirmation, I too long for them to receive it. I want to believe that it is possible to get there. I want to believe in the inherent goodness in every person. But to get there, we can’t ignore the reality of evil. To get there, we have to recognize the truth of each person’s capacity for both good and evil. We must become aware of the good and bad within us and reorient ourselves to the good, again and again. We cultivate a sense of morality in ourselves and our children by encouraging growth in faith, hope, love, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. We tell them stories where the hero defeats the dragon, to give them hope that they can, with God’s grace, overcome the darkness in their own minds and hearts. Because the truth is, the Savior has already won and His kingdom, while not yet in its full glory, is established. So, we fight for the good so that we and those we love can inherit a place in this kingdom.

Image: Saint George Defeating the Dragon by Johan Konig, c. 1630