Love Beyond Efficiency

The Playfulness of God and Bluey — The Best Children’s Show of Our Time

Todd Brewer / 6.18.21

The drop-off for the elementary school is precisely at 8:30am, and there remains just five minutes to walk the three blocks. Still enough time, though only just. “It’s time! Let’s goooo.” But then a second breakfast item is requested, all the masks have gone missing, and no one has any shoes on. With a “No, too late,” a “Shoes, please!” and a “Hurry up!” walking commences down the street as the sound of crying signals yet another scraped knee. “Come on! Almost there …” Arriving at 8:34, school has successfully happened yet again, but it’s not a victory worth celebrating.

Whether it’s morning routines, bedtime routines, dinner time, or going-to-the-store time, the struggle is real. Children are inefficient. For them, the line between play time and, well, everything, is blurry. Or non-existent. Kids are smaller than adults and therefore less capable of self-sufficiency and more easily pushed around. So in the name of getting anything done on time (or at all), compulsion is often the tool of choice for stressed-out parents.

For parents, necessity is the mother not of invention, but of panicked commands. Which isn’t to say that coercion works — far from it. Raised voices or outright threats often have the opposite of the intended effect. Faced with a parent whose blood pressure is raised, children often crumble apart into tears or respond with an unequal and opposite force of will.

With the office having encroached into home life, there’s been a constant battle between needy kids and tired parents. Working from home was the perfect time to teach children how to play independently, we were told at the start of the pandemic. Over a year later, the entire idea of playing with one’s kids seems to now be falling out of favor

Which brings me to Bluey, the best kids show of our time. That is not an exaggeration. Somehow, this show about a very normal family of blue heeler dogs perfectly captures the joys and frustrations of parenting. For Bluey, the family is held together by its whimsical silliness.

Many believe that parenting largely consists in preparing a child to live in the real world. Adulthood is the place of deadlines, self-sufficiency, and compliance, so it’s the responsibility of parents (and TV shows!) to train children accordingly. Bluey takes a different tack. The parents of Bluey don’t (usually) bark orders at their children from the sidelines, beckoning the children to behave more suitably. Instead, they encourage their children’s imaginations — a world of spontaneous play, where Mom and Dad are fellow protagonists.

A parental lesson on manners morphs into a game where an asparagus sprig turns the family into barnyard animals. When the kids demand that Dad clean up after them, he becomes a servile robot. A featherwand makes everyday objects too heavy to pick up, and a xylophone instantly freezes people in place.

This spirit of play extends everywhere — even to the times when most parents are most given to exasperation. When bedtime leads to the ever-too-familiar protest that a beloved stuffed animal is missing, the Mum in Bluey goes on an adventure to search for it. And during a frenzied morning before school, the Dad plays along with the games (even though they’re late).

To play with kids in their imaginative games is to love them on their own terms. A parent who condescends from the lofty and proper world of adulthood and becomes like their child, if only for a while, builds mutual understanding and trust. The playful parent stands with a child, rather than over against them. Play transforms the otherwise demanding authority figure into an object of love. If play is the space where, as psychologists contend, children fictively act out their own desires, fears, or frustrations, then adult participants miraculously become something like non-judgmental counselors.

Being silly to the point of ridiculousness — publicly — is rarely a natural thing for an adult to do. It’s also physically taxing in ways that make movie night far more appealing. Taking an hour plus for a thirty-minute grocery trip never falls on the “to do” list. But this self-deprecating and, frankly, burdensome frivolity is precisely the point. Playful love looks a whole lot like patience, as St. Paul contends, having more to do with the needs of one’s child than any notion of economy or optimization.

Love is never efficient, a fact that’s true for kids and adults alike. Grown-ups like to think of themselves as beyond their childhood immaturities (indeed, adults are not given to crying over literal spilt milk), yet the means by which humans thrive or decline remain universal across all ages. We might not “play” anymore — that sounds too childish to say out loud — but we collaborate, hang out, value shared experiences, or team up to work together. The playful love that makes a child blossom causes adults to flourish just the same.

Almost by definition, such a love rarely travels along our expected or desired path, full of unchosen twists and detours. If the law is the forceful imposition of one’s will upon another in the form of a demand, the exchange of love is the free gift of oneself to another. The path chosen is theirs. In doing so, our very wills and desires concede to that of the beloved, who naturally responds in kind to form a playful exchange of mutual enjoyment.

If God had simply wanted people to worship him, threats would have easily done the trick. If God had wanted people to obey him, coercion would at least have ensured compliance. God’s law, however good and holy it might have been, was never meant to be eternal. 

But God created because he loved, and neither submission nor fearful adoration were his intended aim. So this loving God did as any resourceful parent might do, he condescended to be with his children rather than over against them. He participated in our very nature and dealt with his people with love. God — our father — sings to us that we might dance and plays that we might step away from our self-important work. This silly foolishness of God isn’t always on our to-do list (as Good Friday well illustrates), but God isn’t one to grab his toy and head home. His patience endures — as inefficient as this might be — before the game starts all over again, as if nothing had happened to stop it.