Stuff It, I’ll Make My Own Darn Family!
Updated: Jul 7
How Voicing Stuffed Animals Made Us Better Parents.
Could two STUFFED FOX TOYS be the family we were missing?
Could they be the VOICES WE NEEDED to become better parents?
It might not be your typical family gathering, but giving voice and life to our daughter’s collection of stuffed animals made us better parents.
Hiya, James here from Candy James — a husband-and-wife creative duo from Australia. This is the first of many articles where I’m going to show you how two struggling, severely self-conscious young parents learned to turn their faults into strengths, and how a little creative role-playing enabled them to flip their lives around.
I’m not going to lie to you. The solution might be stranger than the problem. As designers and children’s book author/illustrators in our mid-thirties, living half a world away from what limited family we have, we’ve made a living from making things up. We’ve made scuba diving equipment, swimwear, collectible toys, cookbooks, gardens, children’s books, and a bunch of other interesting things we knew nothing about — but can we make up parenting?
Can we make up parenting? Is that even possible?!
It’s a pretty big deal, but who teaches you this stuff? Seriously.
I remember studying environmental science at uni and they made me take a unit in statistics months before I was ever allowed in the field. My teaching degree made me take linguistics and another unit in people and place an entire semester before I was ever allowed anywhere near a classroom. Clearly there were important things I had to learn before interacting with animals.
And then — pop! — we had a baby!
Our very own, real-life baby!
There we were, 23 years old and still trying to find ourselves. And now we were responsible for something other than ourselves?
Congratulations! You’re a Mummy and Daddy now!
Guess you don’t need a degree for that . . .
We didn’t know the first thing about HOW to be a parent, let alone how to be a GOOD one.
Of course, parenting is not something that can altogether be taught. Parenting 101 might not offer all that much, or even get much of an enrollment to see it last out the semester. It’s something you sort of pick it up as you go along. You learn from your experiences and grow into something resembling the type of parent you had, or wished you had. And if you’re truly stuck, there’s always someone in the family to get time-honored advice from, right?
But what if you don’t have anyone?
What if you’re thousands of miles from your nearest relative, and even if they were close, you wouldn’t get that much from them anyway?
We were struggling.
Archie (he/him), our daughter’s beloved stuffed arctic fox toy. Little did we know the impact he would have on our lives!
But, here’s the thing.
In a survival situation, you don’t look at what you DON’T have, but rather what you DO.
We didn’t have parental mentors, but we did have each other. And we had our voices.
We just didn’t know how to use them yet.
Candy had just graduated design and visual communications with first-class honors. I was between jobs, trying to be a writer. I wrote mysteries, but not the kind you’re thinking. Mine were mysteries because you always wondered if I would ever share them with anyone.
I never did.
I wasn’t confident enough to.
But with Candy’s support, I began to find a little confidence to share something I’d quite enjoyed doing as a child: talking to myself.
Well, not exactly myself, but a host of weird and wacky characters I invented. I had an entire show planned out, something of an all-inclusive talk-show of both people and animals, and in it, I would interview a diverse cast of nutty individuals.
I grew up on a healthy diet of British comedy and the Simpsons, which no doubt inspired my odd take on life and dry sense of humor. I always did these shows in secret, however, and I never shared my ability to perform different accents with anyone else, least of all my friends.
I’d known Candy since we were 15.
We were best friends.
She knew me from art class as a nice boy, playful and silly, but not as a storyteller, or a maker of voices.
Did I know that what I was about to do would change our lives forever?
Nope. Not a clue.
These fluffy foxes, cherished throughout years of ups and downs, have brought us together in ways we never could have dreamed.
So, when, many years later, our daughter started to find her feet (and hands and voice — oh boy, that voice!) and do all the adorable-yet-incredibly-difficult-to-manage things toddlers do (refusing to eat, throwing tantrums, testing boundaries, not listening, etc.), Candy got quite a shock when our family of three was joined by several new members.
Okay, so they might have been a bit fluffier than she was used to — stuffed animals with soft plush fur and googly eyes tend to lack a few hominoid genetic markers — and they might have sounded a little like James with a cold, but here they were.
The oddball voices given to our daughter’s stuffed animals might have raised a few eyebrows at the park, but they sure helped her gain incredible self-confidence, maturity, personal growth, and, dare I say it, humor.
They had an opinion and, despite their incredibly sarcastic view on life and ability to completely flip everything around, they seemed to do a pretty good job of pulling the family together. Maybe even better than Daddy!
Could these two stuffed foxes be the family we were missing? Could they be the family we needed, the VOICES we needed, to be BETTER PARENTS?
Reddie (she/her), our daughter’s stuffed toy red fox. Though smaller than the others, Reddie has always been a force to be reckoned with. Later our daughter would add pants and a red bow to Reddie.
Over the years, numerous parents have praised our “great parenting technique.” I tell you, it’s quite a shock to have someone approach you at the school gate and say that watching us pick up our daughter is the highlight of their day. More so to hear others say they marvel at our ability to communicate with our daughter and connect in a pure, meaningful way.
“I just love seeing you play together, and how full of joy your daughter is to see you every day!” Now, I don’t know about that — I get the feeling these parents were selling themselves short— but what I will say is that we weren’t always like that.
CONFIDENT, I mean. We were very shy, insecure children and, up until then, very shy, insecure young adults. Talking to other people really freaked us out. Bringing attention to ourselves scared us silly. Being a parent didn’t change that. We just carried more baggage. It wasn’t until we started carrying stuffed animals and incorporating them into our daily lives that we found our true voices and had the CONFIDENCE to step out of our shells and embrace the fun and energy that is childhood.
With time, our family has grown — all stuffed animals with extremely distinct voices and unique takes on life — but none of them have quite shaped our daughter as much as Archie & Reddie, two quick-witted foxes with sharp tongues and hearts of gold.
More importantly — and something that I will talk about in later articles — Archie and Reddie have taught us more about parenting than any book, tv show, magazine, or helpful snippet of expert advice ever could have.
These stuffed animals, cherished throughout years of ups and downs have brought us together in ways we never could have dreamed. They have helped us grow stronger as a family, as parents, and more importantly, as creative individuals, each with a unique story to tell.
Candy James, growing their family one stuffed animal at a time.
This is part of an ongoing series by Candy James that explores the role of imagination, play, creativity, acting, and childhood playthings in finding one’s own identity, confidence, and ability as parents and creatives.
Read the hilarious early-reader graphic novel series inspired by our real-life adventures to bring a little fun, magic, and humor to our daughter's childhood.