This Episode Of Bluey Is Called :: Letting My Kids Teach Me To Play
I had been begging the kids to get their swimsuits on so we could get out of the house.
I felt like Chilli Heeler, gesturing desperately at the open door. “The door. It’s right there. We could just – walk through it.” But apparently, like Bluey and Bingo, we couldn’t get out that door, either.
Our younger son (7) was so excited to go he stood like an Easter Island statue glaring at his big brother (10), then started lecturing him in that tone of voice he uses when Someone Has Done Wrong.
I felt the same way, and finally snapped at 10, who had shifted from reluctance (“I don’t wanna leave the house, Mom. It’s 5,000 degrees out there.”) (which, to be fair, was not far from the truth) to actual rudeness (“The splash pad SUCKS. YOU suck. This whole day SUCKS. This is the worst. day. EVER.”), turned him toward the door by the shoulders and steered him manually out to the waiting car, where he occupied his seat in palpable objection, mimicking his little brother and basically filling the left half of the backseat with a black cloud.
Was I making a tactical error? Would this lead to an explosion, sour the rest of the day?
I threw my mind into the future. “When he’s in his 30s and goes to his weekly therapy appointment to process the trauma of being my child, will this be the day that sticks in his memory as the one when I ruined his life?”
(In case you’re not given to this particular genre of maternal anxiety-dread, let me give you the short version: maybe? It will be this day, or some other day, or the whole collection of disagreements and decisions over the previous 29 years … Sigh. Sometimes you just have to grimace at your own insufficiency and move forward anyway.)
I decided to stop questioning my life-choices and just drive to the splash pad. We parked, unbuckled, and the boys ran up to the water-spurting structures. Well, 7 ran. 10 kind of … sidled. Slunk. He wore his discontent the way he used to wear a rash-guard, clinging to his skin, bright and raw as a weal.
“Can’t we go do the nature walk instead?” he asked.
“Not this minute,” I said. “Go play in the water.”
He crossed his arms across his chest and set his jaw. “I don’t want to play in the water. It’s boring.”
“Water is amazing,” I countered. “Go play with your brother.”
“AUUGGHHHHHHH,” he groaned. (I don’t know how else to spell it; it’s half-roar and half-puberty and another half not-getting-his-way.)
“Just, please, try to have fun,” I said. “It’s water spraying everywhere. You love the splash pad.”
“I used to like the splash pad,” he corrected. “But now I don’t. The splash pad is for babies.”
I looked around. There were, it’s true, more toddlers than tweens running through the rainbows of reconstituted water.
And man. There were a lot of toddlers. I felt daunted just looking at them all. Their multicolored swim-clothes, their arms and calves glistening with droplets, their eyes darkened in the play of late-afternoon shadows and sunlight.
“OK, I see your point,” I told him. “But – bear with me here – what if there’s a big kid looking at the fountains and reeeeaaalllllly wishing they could play? You could be the reason they feel brave enough to do it!”
“It’s doesn’t take brave-ness,” he scoffed. “They don’t need a kid who doesn’t even like the splash pad anymore.”
His eyes slid to the side, over to the half-moon pipes and their complex geometry of water shapes. He watched 7 jump up and down in a puddle where the drain could not handle the quantity of water as quickly as it pooled. 7 turned around and gestured to 10, his “c’mon” hand that acknowledges no resistance. His eyes slid back.
“Mom.” He said. “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll go in the splash pad – IF you get me a Sprite on the way home.”
“Nothing doing, kiddo,” I said. “The splash pad is its own reward.”
“Fine,” he grumped, and stalked off into the spray. But he turned around and glared at me, then pronounced, for all the world like someone in a soap opera, “‘Cause you give” – finger quotes – “such ‘great rewards‘.” He shook his head and turned his back.
I watched him walk away, feeling anxious frustration and emotional exhaustion tightening my throat. I sent my husband a text that read, “The Bitch Is Back,” and he sent back the sideways-mouth emoji.
Before I had time to text back, though, both 10 and 7 were dripping onto my feet, shivering. “The water’s so cold!” 10 said. 7 wrapped his arms around his torso and looked at me indignantly. “Cooohhh!” he echoed.
“Well, it has been 5,000 degrees every day for almost a month,” I reminded them. “Maybe a little cold water might feel good?” But they both exclaimed and demanded their shirts and shoes.
I had to close my eyes, take a breath, and count to 10. I counted to 10 approximately 27,00 times.
“OK,” I conceded. “Still wanna do the nature trail?”
“YEESSSSSS!” 10 shouted, jumping and wriggling his feet back into his sneakers. He reached for his brother’s hand. “C’mon!”
I hung back as they ran across the mulch-y ground beneath the swing area, and the grass between the splash pad and the play structures, and then the play-structures themselves. “This is one of those moments,” I told myself. “This is one of those times when they say ‘Offer it up’.”
“OK, God,” I said, under my breath, feeling kind of put out. “This whole obnoxious disaster – it’s Yours.” And followed my kids into the forested acreage behind the playground.
We made our way forward on a raised wooden walkway. 10 stopped to read a sign. “We have to be on the wood because there are some – Mom, what’s a ge-nus?” He sounded it out, pronounced it “geh-nus.”
“Gee-nus,” I corrected. “It’s a kind of thing,” I said absently, watching the way the slight – and very welcome – breeze made leaf-shadows on the walkway wood.
“But what kind of thing?” he insisted. I blinked.
“Oh! No, not any one thing specifically. A genus is a type. Like … conifers are a genus of trees. And so pine trees, fir trees, spruce trees, other trees that stay green all year long, even in the winter, are part of the genus of conifers.”
“Christmas trees!” he exclaimed, and we smiled at each other. “Yep,” I told him. (7 echoed, “Bipmah teee!” and we smiled at him too.) 10 darted forward and grabbed a stick from the side of the walkway.
“It’s a protection staff!” he announced, and held it out in front of him as we proceeded forward. He bent over a second time, grabbed another stick, and handed it to 7. “You can help keep us safe from MURDERERS in the …”
“Does it have to be murderers??” I asked him. “Couldn’t it be, like, raccoons?”
“YES!” he shouted again. “You can help keep us safe from RACCOON MURDERERS!”
I closed my eyes and watched him skip forward. Every few steps he stopped to listen intently, then banged his stick against the wooden walkway railing. 7 followed suit.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” 10 said. “We are here to protect you.”
“I appreciate that,” I answered, touched, proud that I had kept the wryness out of my voice. “So the raccoon murderers won’t get me? I guess they’re only out for raccoons, maybe?”
He looked at me with confused eyebrows. “NOOOO, MOOOMMMM,” he said. “Not people who murder raccoons. Raccoons who murder people! You know, raccoon murderers!”
My child has an infinite, often dramatic, imagination.
We continued forward. Suddenly 10 stopped suddenly, so 7 did too, and I felt my feet anchor quickly to the wood underneath. “What’s up–” I started, but he shushed me vehemently.
(Have you ever noticed how loud it is to say “shush”? I did, at that very moment.)
“SPIES,” he whispered.
“SPIES?” I whispered back.
He nodded seriously. “SPIES.”
“What kind of spies?”
He looked around carefully, lowered his voice by a couple more decibels, and said, “Genus spies.”
I tucked my lips inside my mouth and did not laugh.
“We better tiptoe,” I whispered. 7 nodded his approval of the plan. He pushed his index finger against his lips and made a (loud) “shush” sound, too.
We did. The thing about genus: spies is, they know how to anticipate your moves and trick you. Every few steps 10 gave a hard signal with one hand and we stopped. Then he gesticulated for us to walk left or right, and we tiptoed together in that direction.
After a few minutes we got to a narrow path where the walkway stopped, and we stepped quietly down onto the bare earth. “Whew,” 10 said, wiping his forehead. “No more spies.”
“Thank goodness for that,” I said, wiping my forehead as he had.
“But now, Mom,” he began, then thought and spoke slowly, “nooooowwww, we have to stay all single-file to avoid the … SNAKES!”
“SNAKES!” I cried.
“Naaaee!” cried 7.
“Here,” 10 said to his little brother,” come put your hands around my waist. And Mom, put your hands around his waist, and we’ll go verrry carefully.” We complied, and the three of us scuttled forward on the path, all together.
Together we enacted cautious starts and juddered to stops upon his direction, and he kept us safe, even on the narrowest part of the path where the ghost of a stream made us jump from tree-stump to tree-stump, balancing gingerly on the balls of our feet before making the next jump. After a moment I registered a kind of sound that had made its way into the back of my consciousness. Humming. 10 was humming.
He was humming the “Overture” from Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen. Because they use this music in an episode of Bluey, the one called “Faceytalk,” where Bluey and Bingo, and Muffin and Socks, have a video call and Muffin escapes with Uncle Stripes’ phone. It’s a hilarious episode, one I think every parent of a toddler can identify with – and one that probably thrills every single kid who wants to have unlimited access to their parents’ phones.
He was humming. Because he was happy. And hearing him, I felt all my anxiety and hesitation recede.
It’s hard, being a planner with anxiety, and being the parent of a child who does not share your plans. The desire to control more can grow very strong. Very. It’s hard to let go.
But – repeating firmly within myself a line I tell 10 with great regularity – we can do hard things.
So we did. We escaped from the snakes and the spies and the raccoon murderers, and we tightroped across a 1,000-foot gulf sideways, and we ran from a troop of aliens, and defeated a radioactive bear. We sang classical music and collected sticks and examined a really weird bug and rode in a taxi driven by an insane … “UNICORN!” 10 exclaimed, and 7 jumped in glee … and we danced when we reached the edge of the pond, and whooped in triumph. “We made it!” 10 yelled, and 7 yelled “YEAH! YEAH! YEAH!”
When they started walking in the mud at the edge of the pond my anxiety came back, I admit, and I said it was time to go back, and they both went “Awwwww!” but walked agreeably back toward the playground and the water. There was a roundabout where we escaped capture by Potato Heads, and a crosswalk that became a slippery corridor sloping downward. And then … we were back on the asphalt and mulch and grass and concrete where we had started. I stopped for a second, to catch my breath, and looked around us at the nature and the way the park was built and this amazing tree-stump with a starfish right at the center. How many stars old was this tree before it fell? I wondered. Can you count a tree by the number of things it makes you imagine, instead of just rings?
A small voice nestled its way into my musing.
“Hey Mom?” 10 said, a little bit shyly, “Can we go in the splash pad?”
They ran through the fountains and “hid” in the umbrella-like curtain of water that comes out of a water structure like a fire hydrant. They jumped in the deep part where the drain doesn’t quite work, and sat down in the sun slant with water-arches falling on either side of them. They were the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
Later that evening we watched Bluey for a while, and I do mean A. While. 4 episodes? 5? 9? I lost count. I was engrossed in the loveliness of the show. The creativity of Bluey and Bingo’s games together, and the generosity of Bandit and Chilli who know when to put down their grown-upped-ness and become part of the playing.
I’ve heard a fair number of parents lately, complaining about the parents on Bluey who have seriously upped the bar for child-centered family life.
Bandit and Chilli are ALWAYS available to play, or at least to participate in the girls’ games. All Twitter grumbled about it collectively a few weeks back. It makes some working parents feel … inadequate, I think. Or maybe annoyed. Or maybe both. But it makes me wistful. I’m always so worried about time. There’s just never enough of it, for us as a family or for my work or my husband’s music or for the games I wish we played after family dinner together at the table – Clue, or Uno, or Pictionary, or … just talking. I remember talking with my parents when I was a kid. But I’m the parent now, and I’m not the parent my Mom and Dad were, and my kids are not the kid I was. So when did being in charge become larger than being part of something?
When did I forget how to play?
I’ll be honest: I am a lot more like Bandit than Chilli. I get impatient, I get engrossed in my work and have to close my office door so I can concentrate on a phone call, I get angry. I am careless with my words sometimes, and I don’t always have the slowness of reaction to be kind, rather than annoyed. And, again being honest, if I do get involved in a game it’s usually as the snarky one. In Bluey characters, my spirit animal is Unicorse.
That afternoon, I let my kid’s imagination determine our way forward. We don’t have to be “my” family – the family I grew up in (and almost certainly remember in too rosy a light, especially when I’m feeling inadequate about my skills as a parent). I don’t have to be my parents, my husband doesn’t have to be his parents, our kids don’t have to be kid-versions of kid-usses. We just need to be – get to be – us, doing after-dinner dance parties or running from reptile marauders or cuddling together on an armchair that will, all too soon, be too small for me and both my boys.
So maybe I am more like Bandit.
That’s OK, though, I tell myself. Bandit has his amazing moments too. Like in “Born Yesterday,” when he steps out of his role as the grown-up and pretends to learn the world all over again, from zero. He looks at a leaf, and sees it as a brand-new thing. He gives it a new name. At the end of the episode, when the kids have tired of the game and gone inside, Bandit remains in the backyard, holding his leaf up to the light, marvelling at its feathery edges, its veins, its green. When they had had their fill of water fountains and the afternoon had started sliding down the curve of the horizon, 7 came up and said, “Mama, I want BRBRBRBRBR,” the roaring sound he makes with his lips to indicate my car. (The sound is accurate.) And 10 walked over, eyes creased a little in happy fatigue, and said, “Can we go now? And can we get a Sprite on the way home? And can we watch something?”
“Would you two like to watch some … Bluey?” I asked, looking into their faces (that were so much rounder and cheekish and babyish, what seems like five minutes ago).
“Hooray!” they said in stereo, just like Bluey and Bingo, and we got into the BRBRBRBRBR and stopped for a Sprite and a lemonade, and went home to grilled cheese sandwiches, apple slices, and carrot sticks for dinner, and a Bluey mini-marathon before bedtime, and I held their still-chubby hands and caressed their hair and listened to their 10,000 questions and took them in and marveled.