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One Good Thing: The cartoon dog who taught me how to be a dad

Bluey opened up my imagination and made the most boring part of parenting fun.

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The stars of the kids’ cartoon “Bluey”: an animated family of blue heeler dogs.
The Heeler family in Bluey.
BBC Studios/Disney

I am not what you might term an imaginative person. As a child, I liked to read the World Book encyclopedias gathering dust in our attic, editions so old that the Korean War was covered as an ongoing conflict. In high school, my history teacher referred to me as a “concrete sequential thinker,” which apparently meant that I processed information in an ordered, linear way. He meant this as a compliment, I think, but keep in mind this was a guy who wore ties and a short-sleeved dress shirt to the classroom every day.

I wasn’t much fun at parties, but these habits of mind served me well enough in my career as a journalist and editor for nearly 20 years. Then, in 2017, my wife and I had a son we named Ronan, followed a few years later by the puppies.

The puppies, I should make clear, aren’t real. (There’s that concrete sequential thinking at work.) One day they simply emerged, fully formed, from our son’s mind. They were invisible companions and all-purpose explanations for any and all phenomena. How did he know that he liked mac and cheese and disliked most other foods? His puppies told him. Why was he tired when he woke up in the morning? He’d spent the night at his puppies’ house, which was in Australia, or maybe South America, or possibly down the street from us in Brooklyn. How many puppies were there? Twelve, or a thousand, or “an infinity.”

My wife Siobhan, who can see beyond the surface of the world with perfect 20/20 vision, adapted to this easily. But not me. Change a diaper, read a bedtime story (or five), give comfort after a skinned knee or hurt feelings, all of that I could do. But enter fully into a child’s imaginative world, temporarily abandon the facts and rules of adulthood to live on his level? That I struggled with.

And then I met Bandit Heeler.

Bandit really does live in Australia, in the coastal city of Brisbane, with his wife Chili and their two young daughters Bluey and Bingo. I believe he has a job of some sort; we never actually see him work, though at one point he strolls into the kitchen in a short-sleeved shirt and tie combo that would not have been out of place in my high school history class.

Also, Bandit is a dog. They’re all dogs (blue heelers, actually, a common and beloved Australian breed). And they’re on what Vulture rightly called “the best kids’ show of our time”: Bluey.

Our family discovered Bluey in the depths of the pandemic, when the world had seemed to shrink to the size of our apartment and the only window to the outside was the flat-screen TV in the living room. Created by the Australian animator Joe Brumm and streaming in the US on Disney+, each episode of Bluey runs about seven minutes, and centers on the imaginative games played by Bluey and Bingo. Their suburban home is transformed into a hotel; Bluey turns a set of chairs into a taxi taking harried passengers to the airport; a stick of asparagus at dinner becomes a magic wand that turns family members into (other) animals.

Bluey, Bingo, and their friends have no trouble losing themselves in imaginary games without getting bored or calling for a screen. But what sets the show apart is the role the adults — and especially Bandit, the dad — play in those games.

Unlike me, Bandit can instantly become an eager participant in whatever his kids dream up, almost as though some part of him is still 4-and-three-quarters-years old. In the hotel game, he’s an overly picky guest; in the taxi game, he’s the passenger desperate to get to the airport; when struck by the magic asparagus, he transforms into a highly convincing walrus. My brother — who has two young boys himself — jokes that the only problem with Bandit is that he sets the bar too high for the rest of us dads who might be tempted to give the occasional look at Twitter, rather than get down on the carpet for yet another toddler game with no rules and no end.

But that isn’t quite true. Watch the show enough times — and in our home we have watched it many, many, many times — and you can see the tugs of impatience and frustration begin to edge into the screen. How many times, after all, can an adult play “Postman” or pretend that the floor is lava? But each time Bandit still does it — in part because, as the Australians say, “it’s gotta be done,” but also because he loves his children. And more than that, because he loves to live in the worlds they create.

In a recent conversation with Vox’s Sean Illing on the spiritual practice of parenting, the writer David Spangler touched on the challenge of navigating the in-between aspects of parenthood — one foot in reality and one foot in the world of the child. “It’s about being large enough to encompass both at the same time,” Spangler said. “I’m not surrendering my adult responsibilities, but I’m also giving myself the gift of being open to those moments.”

That’s the gift my son has offered me, one I’ve learned to appreciate with the help of a blue dog with an enviable amount of patience and imagination. That doesn’t mean there isn’t some part of my mind, as bedtime approaches and Ronan begins telling stories of his puppies, that begins to think about just where you might put an infinite number of imaginary puppies, and if they live in Brooklyn, how much they’re paying in rent. But there’s another, growing part, that embraces a second chance at being the child I never really was.

In the second-season episode “Rug Island,” Bandit actually does have to go to work, only to be pulled back into the backyard game Bluey and Bingo are playing. They’ve turned a rug into a desert island — hence, “Rug Island” — and Bandit becomes a castaway trying to get home. A box of felt pens becomes everything from tropical fruit to a canoe oar, and Bandit spends the morning increasingly engrossed in his children’s game.

In the end, though, work calls, and Bandit is “rescued” back into the adult world — but not before Bingo gives him one last felt pen wrapped in a leaf. As he climbs up the stairs of the porch, a waiting Chili asks, “What did she give you?” Bandit unwraps the leaf and smiles.

“Everything.”

Bluey is available on Disney+ and Hulu Premium. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.