Is My Parasocial Relationship With Bluey Making Me A Better Parent?
And: how many times can a cartoon make me cry?
A lot of early parenthood is a blur, but I remember the exact moment that we became a Bluey House.
It was on a bad day about three months ago. One of those moments of desperation when Juniper was inconsolable despite the fact that I knew she was well-rested, fed, and clean and I’d been playing with her all morning and the only thing left in my bag of tricks was distraction. Normally I’m not the kind of parent who is like, quit crying, eat your television! but you have to understand, there’s no sound in the world that is more annoying/distressing than your kid crying at you when you don’t know what’s wrong. Yeah, I know screen time is bad. I also knew that if she didn’t stop crying soon I would throw myself in front of the next FedEx truck that careened down my block. Desperate times.
I turned on the TV, fired up Disney Plus, and pushed play on episode one of an Australian cartoon about a family of talking dogs. Little did I know that from that moment on, I would have an unending loop of the Bluey theme song stuck in my head. It is the shared affliction of all Bluey houses; that is, millions and millions of parents who had children under the age of five at some point between 2018 and the present.
The second the theme song started playing, Juniper stopped crying, turned to the TV and started dancing. (It should be noted that at that point in her life, “dancing” consisted of her waving one or both hands around like she’s conducting an orchestra. Now, she’s graduated to kicking and bobbing her head.)
I have to hand it to my toddler: she was absolutely right about Bluey. This show kicks ass. Add her positive review and mine to the show’s near-perfect rating on IMDB and Scrooge McDuck money bin-sized pile of awards.
We are now a full-on Bluey House. We’ve got Bluey pajamas. We listen to Bluey: The Album in the car. One set of grandparents got her an 18-inch-tall Bluey doll that sings and dances for Christmas, and over the last few days, Juniper has wanted the doll to stand on the table facing her while she eats.
I’ve now seen every episode of Bluey. I’ve seen a few episodes several times. (Each episode is under 10 minutes long, so it’s not that hard to quickly burn through the Bluey catalog, even though the first two seasons have something like fifty episodes each). Juniper doesn’t always pay attention to it beyond the part where the theme song plays or during the end credits, when she stops what she’s doing in order to dance to the music. I do pay attention. In fact, I pay so much attention that I know more about this fictional family of dogs than I do about the families of most of my close friends.
Bluey centers around the play adventures of the Heeler family– Bluey and her little sister, Bingo along with their parents, Chili and Bandit. Often, the Heeler parents facilitate, encourage, or engage with the sort of meandering barely-sensible play that kids make up when left to their own devices. It’s a cute show, even at first glance.
Watch as many episodes as I have, however, and it will get into your head.
I have questions about the Bluey universe. The Heeler family lives in an alternate universe where humans do not exist; the dogs are the apex predators and are the architects of civilization. They have jobs and drive cars and use electricity and participate in capitalism and go on vacation and have barbecues with other families of dogs. The dogs do not wear clothing. The dogs do celebrate Christmas, which means that Christianity exists, which means that somewhere in the world of Bluey there is a church that displays iconography of a crucified Dog-Jesus. This also implies the existence of a Dog Pope and a Dog Inquisition, Dog Witch Trials and Dog Crusades. Bluey doesn’t really dive into all that, though, which is probably for the best.
My parasocial relationship with these cartoon dogs now eclipses any parasocial relationship I have with any actual human beings. I worry that Chili might actually secretly be depressed, based on that one episode when Bandit pretends to be a sheep after he gets a bad haircut so that the children will leave her alone, or the episode where she cries in the baby room because they’ve decided not to have any more kids. I wonder about Bandit’s backstory based off an off-handed comment he made about how he used to be cool. I wonder if Bandit and Chili were accomplished improv comedians, as they are both so good at yes and’ing their kids’ goofy play.
I am jealous of the Heeler family for the world they inhabit. The other day, as my daughter played with her educational enrichment puzzles by taking them apart and throwing the pieces under the furniture (one of the lessons of Bluey is that independent play is vital to child development, which works great for when I’ve been interacting with a barely-verbal toddler all day and I just do not have any more energy to point at this one picture in her Winnie the Pooh book for the zillionth time), Josh and I sat on the couch watching the Bluey that the baby was ignoring. This particular episode had an establishing shot of their beautiful Brisbane home.
“They have such a good life,” Josh said, sighing. “It pisses me off.”
“They make me want to move to Australia,” I replied. “And become a dog.”
We have envied the decor of the Bluey and Bingo’s bedrooms, the spaciousness of the Heeler bathroom and the little letters that stick on the side of the tub. We have seared with jealousy over their spacious backyard and their vacation home with a pool. We have envied the amount of paid vacation time that Australians get, even in the dog universe. I have spent hours scrolling through photos of Queensland and envied the real biodiversity that the fake dogs live in. I always thought that if I had a second child, it would be cool to have a boy, but now that I’ve seen how much fun Bluey and Bingo have playing together, I kind of want Juniper to have a sister. This is all from a cartoon. Like: what?
At the end of many episodes, somebody learns an important lesson. At the end of other episodes, the show suddenly drop kicks your heart across the room. The writers of Bluey have figured out how to play my emotions like a harpsichord.
There’s one episode where Chili sits with her father at the end of a dock where she played as a kid, watching her own children play, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, this happens:
Reader, I sobbed. I ugly sobbed. This isn’t the only Bluey moment that has reduced me to helpless Pixar-level tears. There’s “Sleepy Time,” where Bingo is trying to sleep by herself, without her mother, and has a dream that she is flying through space and the sun, with her mother’s voice, tells her that she’ll always be there for her, even if she can’t see her. Or “Baby Race,” when Chili reflects on Bluey’s first steps. Or the episode where Bluey makes a friend when they’re camping (episode title: “Camping”) and doesn’t get a chance to say goodbye to him. Or the episode when it rains and Bluey tries to build a dam across the sidewalk. That episode has only two lines of dialogue and the rest is music! How dare it!
But beyond the location envy and tear duct bloodletting, I think this little cartoon might be making me a better parent.
Bluey’s creators have emphasized in interviews that one of the show’s central themes is the importance of independent, child-directed play, a message I’ve internalized more from this show than I have from any book on parenting I’ve read.
I’ve found myself in situations with my daughter where she, say, feeds the dinner I prepared for her directly to the dog and then puts her fork back in her mouth, or opens the drawer where we keep the thermoses and throws every single item from said drawer onto the unswept kitchen floor (which I have not swept because I had spent the morning following her around and cleaning up the messes she leaves in her wake). I’ve found myself in situations where she would rather be held and carried than ride in her stroller and my arms are already very tired, or clings to me for so long in the morning that I run out of time to take a shower before my husband has to leave for work. And I don’t try to stop her from playing, even if she’s making a mess, as long as it’s not dangerous. And I don’t try to discourage her from wanting to be held, because she won’t always want to be held. I can trace these moments directly back to Bluey.
There’s no official word on whether there will be a season 4 of Bluey, so for now, I’m hoping that Juniper doesn’t get sick of the 140-ish episodes of the show that already exist. I could stand to learn a few more parenting lessons from Chili and Bandit, and I don’t know if my already-thin sanity can withstand an onslaught of Peppa Pig.
Bandit has become an aspirational father figure for me, he lives in my imagine with the dad from "Calvin and Hobbes", and for sure there were ZERO dry eyes in my house when we watched "Sleepy Time" - that 10 minute short is so deeply embedded in my mind that I can't even listen to Holst's "Jupiter" anymore without welling up
I'm not a parent, but I recently visited my friend in Denmark who has two young kids. I watched Bluey with them, and even though it was in Danish and so I couldn't understand everything, I was MESMERIZED! It was so good! One of the ones we watched was the rain/dam building one, so with the lack of dialogue that one was easy to follow. It almost makes me want to watch them myself at home.