Illustrations by E.H. Shepard
Have you ever read the original Winnie the Pooh stories? “Winnie-the-Pooh” and “The House at Pooh Corner” were written by Alan Alexander Milne in the late 1920s. I’ve read so many Disney spin-off books, and watched so many Disney Pooh movies, that I’d never realized the hidden treasure that was the original writing of A.A Milne. Winnie-the-Pooh is more than just a whimsical childhood favorite; he’s a parenting guru. Over the years, some have theorized that each character is the embodiment of untreated “neurodevelopmental and psychosocial problems”, or a mental illness. That wasn’t my take. After reading the actual books, it’s easy to see that each of the characters in the Hundred-Acre-Wood represents an attribute of a child’s personality. Together, they make up a normal, healthy preschooler. Considering we’re treating more and more children like they’re mentally ill, it doesn’t surprise me that some interpreted the books that way, but I’m out to restore their good name.
Filled with deep musings and sage advice, this classic is a must-read for every parent. The book is narrated by none other than Milne himself. In real life, he was the father of young Christopher Robin Milne, who renamed his stuffed bear, Winnie-ther-Pooh (no, that’s not a spelling mistake, “Don’t you know what ther means?”). Book 1 opens up with Milne casually telling us what Pooh’s morning routine is like. Christopher Robin interjects, and asks him to tell Pooh a story, “About himself. Because he’s that sort of bear”. So, Milne begins a Once Upon a Time saga. As he slowly sets the stage of a simple, hungry, fluff-stuffed bear who likes to write poetry, Christopher Robin keeps interrupting with questions and clarifications, but Milne doesn’t mind. It gets a little meta when Milne explains that Pooh is going to visit “his friend Christopher Robin, who lived behind a green door in another part of the forest.” The real Christopher Robin, who is having the story spun to him, is fascinated to hear his own name, and is referred to as “you” for a while.
“Well, it just happened that you had been to a party the day before at the house of your friend Piglet…”
Milne was brilliant, really. He lovingly indulged his son’s fantasy about a world where he and his stuffed-animal friends have great adventures, then wrote two books about them (and two lesser known poetry books). Pooh speaks very simply, yet there is something profound and knowing in his words. Let’s go through each of the characters and their traits. See if you can point out your toddler’s dominant Hundred-Acre-Wood personality.
Winnie-the-Pooh: Our main character is innocent, well-meaning, and honest. He makes mistakes, asks forgiveness, and comes up with imaginative and creative solutions. He’s forgetful, he daydreams, his mind wanders, he’s always hungry, and he’s constantly thinking.
“‘I listened, but I had a small piece of fluff in my ear. Could you say it again, please, Rabbit?’ Rabbit never minded saying things again…”
Sometimes, you just have repeat something. Toddlers are constantly trying to learn, and sometimes that learning gets in the way of listening. Breathe, get their attention, repeat the question.
“…when you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”
I love this one. Kids say some pretty bizarre stuff sometimes. Once they get a grasp on language, they come up with all kinds of fanciful stories and unique ideas. Sometimes, something they think up makes more sense in their head than it does when they say it. Hey, I do that all the time.
“…my spelling is Wobbly. It’s good spelling but it Wobbles, and the letters get in the wrong places.” -Pooh
Translation: Please forgive my mistakes. I’m trying my best, and you get the gist of it, right? Plus, this is literally just something kids do. Parents often worry that their pre-schooler or kindergartener might be dyslexic, because they write their letters and numbers backwards, or get the order mixed up. In reality, this is fine and normal up through about the age of 7. They spell phonetically, and don’t always write in a straight line, but the great majority of them will get there, with time and practice.
Piglet: Little Piglet is nervous, insecure, anxious, and generally pretty cautious. He musters up strength when he needs to, and has more courage in him than he realizes, but sometimes his imagination gets carried away, and he scares himself.
“‘It is hard to be brave,’ said Piglet, sniffling slightly, ‘when you’re only a Very Small Animal.'”
I am twice as tall, and five times as heavy as my oldest Very Small Human. That’s a big difference! If you’re 5ft 5in tall, and 150lbs, imagine living in a world where everything is made for creatures who are 11ft tall, and 750lbs, give or take. You would be considered a Very Small Animal, so things like Very Loud Toilets, and Very Jumpy Dogs might scare you.
“Piglet was so excited at the idea of being Useful, that he forgot to be frightened anymore.”
Great tip! Help them snap out of some of the fear of the unknown (or that meltdown) by letting them feel useful and needed. It always feels nice when someone appreciates your efforts. It can help you feel more competent, confident, in control (of yourself, not necessarily others), and proud of your efforts. Most importantly though, it has the potential to calm them the —- down.
“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
‘Pooh!’ he whispered.
‘Nothing,’ said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.'”
Replace “Pooh” with “Mommy”. And repeat it a few more times. Louder. So, that’s usually how we hear it, but I guess I can understand why. With all of the other facets of our lives pulling at our attention, our kids are sometimes forced to yell repeatedly to get it, but the only thing they want sometimes is to be sure we’re going to respond. They’re still Very Small Humans who need help in a Fast-Moving-Very-Large World, and sometimes, they just need to crawl into your arms and know you’re still looking out for them.
Tigger: Always on the move, always ready to bounce on you, Tigger can wear on everyone, but his heart is in the right place. Even his friends get a little fed up with him sometimes. He doesn’t realize his own strength and size, and when he unintentionally hurts others, he doesn’t understand why they don’t want to be around him. Tigger is also quite sensitive; he can get easily offended, and often doesn’t know what to do with his feelings. He’s a happy Tigger, though! He’s playful, he teases, he forgives, and he puts everything in his mouth.
“Tigger, who was a Very Bouncy Animal, with a way of saying How-do-you-do, which always left your ears full of sand, even after Kanga had said, ‘Gently, Tigger dear’…”
If you’ve ever heard the Tigger Movie song, you know Tiggers are “bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun!” These days, we know that sugar doesn’t cause hyperactivity, like we once believed. That’s a myth. So why is your child made of rubber and springs? There are numerous studies which explain the intense, and very real need for children to get up and move, and that it is actually crucial to learning and retention. So, when you’re reading that bedtime story, don’t get upset if your toddler doesn’t want to sit in your lap.; let them walk, keep reading. Wandering or playing with another toy is not a sign that they aren’t listening, test them and see!
“…however big Tigger seemed to be, he wanted as much kindness as Roo.” – Kanga
Kanga gets it. At what age is, “You’re not a baby anymore!” the right response to a behaviour or request? 2? 6? 12? At what point should your kids stop needing your help, patience, or leeway? “Can you tie my shoe please, Mom?” We have to go! You’re 9 years old, you know how to tie your own shoe! I know there are days when I ask my husband, “Can you tie my shoe, please? I’m just too tired.” No matter how big, we all deserve a little slack, and a lot of kindness.
“‘They’re very good flyers, Tiggers are. Stornry good flyers.’
‘Ooo,’ said Roo. ‘Can they fly as well as Owl?’
‘Yes’, said Tigger, ‘Only they don’t want to.’
‘Why don’t they want to?’
‘Well, they just don’t like it, somehow.'”
I think we all know this isn’t true. Tigger fibs, but not maliciously. Kids fib and tell fanciful stories all the time. As parents and caregivers, it’s our job to teach them that lying is bad, but why do they do it? It’s mostly unintentional, and they just need to be reminded that lying isn’t a great way to operate, because, like Pooh, they can be a little forgetful at times. Preschoolers have a difficult time discerning fantasy from reality, and sometimes a retelling of the day morphs into some underwater excursion because their imagination takes over, and they don’t even realize it. Some outright lie to your face to get out of trouble. The first instances of lying show they’ve developed the wherewithal to understand a false narrative. Bravo, Very Small Human! Mine’s still at the brutally honest stage. This great Scholastic’s article also points out that, ya know, we kinda lie to them all the time (Easter Bunny, Elf on the Shelf, we’re all out of snack bars, etc). Since they’ve only been earthside for all of 3-6 years (give or take), they really don’t have a whole lot of relevant experience – I don’t know about you, but I had 17 years of schooling and testing, and I only learned how to study in the last 3. The experience preschoolers do have in their short lives is that fibbing is very bad, but kind of acceptable… sometimes. So, they’ll test reality. If it’s harmless, let it slide, participate in the fantasy and make it wildly outlandish! There are many other reasons preschoolers lie, but most of them can result be explained by normal, healthy child development. Story-telling is great, lying is not great.
Eeyore: Poor, sulky Eeyore lives at Eeyore’s Gloomy Place, which should tell you something. He’s mopey, unmotivated, and has a very defeatist attitude. He feels unloved, ignored, and sometimes he misses the kind things people do for him. Despite his melancholy persona, his friends never give up on him. They always do their best to cheer him up, and a lot of the time, he has legitimate reasons for being blue.
“‘It’s bad enough,’ said Eeyore, almost breaking down, ‘being miserable myself, what with no presents and no cake and no candles, and no proper notice taken of me at all…'”
Sometimes, we don’t realize the significance of our actions or inaction when it comes to our kids. Something as small as forgetting a good-night kiss could set off a colossal meltdown because, “What if they forgot about me? What if they don’t want to kiss me? What if they don’t love me anymore?” It doesn’t have to be rational to us, but when everything to them is extreme and concrete, it can mean a whole lot.
“Sometimes he thought to himself, ‘Why?’ and sometimes he thought, ‘Wherefore?’ and sometimes he thought, “Inasmuch as which?'”
Dreary Eeyore gets a little depressed and existential at times. Have you ever see a toddler do it? The head droops, nothing will assuage the melodrama that is about to unfold. Nothing matters. What’s the point of anything? All is lost. Sometimes, it’s a little more intense – arms akimbo, they flop down on a bed or couch or floor, burying their face in their hands or a pillow or blanket, crying like they just watched their investments plummet through the floor. “Uuuuughhh!!!” It’s all very dramatic at 3, I suppose.
“‘Could you stop turning round for a moment, because it muddles me rather?’
‘No,’ said Eeyore, ‘I like turning round.'”
Eeyore can be stubborn. Occasionally, he works against the best efforts of those trying to help him, and that gets hella frustrating.
Owl: Talkative, very talkative. Owl likes to educate, tell stories, and explain rules. He’s precocious, which we often use as a negative adjective, but which really just means he’s ahead of the game, maturity- and/or ability-wise. He’s the go-to animal in the Forest for information and advice.
“‘My dear Pooh,’ said Owl in his superior way, ‘Don’t you know what an ambush is?'”
Owl is what some might call a know-it-all. Owl can spell (sort of, as he gets his letters mixed up quite a bit, too), he is full of facts (which are mostly true), and he likes to explain things to others (with a few misconceptions accidentally thrown in). Sometimes, he comes off as snobbish, but it’s only because he wants to feel important. Just like Piglet, he wants to be useful, and the best way he knows how to be useful is by using or sharing his knowledge.
“…Owl was telling Kanga an Interesting Anecdote full of long words like Encyclopaedia and Rhododendron…”
He knows he doesn’t know everything, but when Owl has big words to use, he uses them, because he’s proud that he knows them. Sometimes it frustrates or confuses his friends, but he’s always the first they go to with a problem, or when they need clarification on something.
“‘It was on just such a blusterous day as this that my Uncle Robert, a portrait of whom you see upon the wall on your right, Piglet, while returning in the late forenoon from a-…'”
Owl LOVES to recount stories. He has an excellent memory, and remembers events in vivid detail. Sometimes, if he gets interrupted, he’ll try to restart the story multiple times, because he has a strong need to be heard. Don’t we all?
Rabbit: Rabbit is another one of those characters who can get under your skin, even though he means well. He’s bossy, he can be an instigator, he holds grudges, but he always has novel ideas. Rabbit is a bit of an introvert sometimes; he prefers if things are calmer and quieter, and gets angry when that doesn’t work out. He’s generous though, and takes care of his closest friends.
“Rabbit began to feel like it was time he took command.”
When things start to spiral out of control, Rabbit has to step in, because HE knows the answer. Actually, he usually does. He can organize and mobilize the gang to do just about anything, and they usually need the help.
“‘Tigger’s getting so bouncy nowadays that it’s time we taught him a lesson. Don’t you think so, Piglet?'”
When Rabbit gets hold of an idea, he can be very persuasive, and because he’s a leader, he can sometimes lead his friends in a bad direction. He influences the others, and they respect him because of his air of authority, even though it’s not always the best idea.
Kanga & Roo: The caregiver, and the baby. Kanga is the protective, patient, gentle, understanding mama, who opens her home and her pantry to everyone. She bathes little Roo, gives him his medicine, and makes sure he stays out of trouble. To Kanga, everyone is “Dear”. She can seem exasperated at times, and she doesn’t put up with any nonsense, but she’s forgiving. I see Kanga as being both the nurturing side of toddlers, as well as the epitome of “Mama”.
“Kanga never takes her eyes off Baby Roo, except when he’s safely buttoned up in her pocket.”
Thank goodness for babywearing.
“a Kanga was Generally Regarded as One of the Fiercer Animals… it is well known that, if One of the Fiercer Animals is Deprived of Its Young, it becomes as fierce as Two of the Fiercer Animals… Rabbit went on to say that Kangas were only Fierce during the winter months, being at other times of an Affectionate Disposition.”
I need a shirt that says, “Generally Regarded as One of the Fiercer Animals.” Milne wasn’t just watching his son play; he knew his wife, and he knew what mothering meant to her.
“Roo was washing his face and hands in the stream, while Kanga explained to everybody proudly that this was the first time he had ever washed his face himself…”
There’s that proud Mama Kanga. Parents know that even the smallest milestone is enough to make you beam with pride.
Roo is the baby. He still speaks like a baby, but nobody corrects him; they just smile and move on. Kanga has to tell him the hard truths, like that it’s bath time, or that he can’t eat that, or that it’s time to go home, and it’s tough for Baby Roo, but he has a lot of people to comfort him. Everyone looks out for him, and everyone makes sure he’s protected and fed. Aside from that time they stole him. Just read the book.
“I can swim. I fell into the river and I swimmed.”
Sweet, silly Roo. Often too small to participate or stay out too long, he gets his adventure wherever he can. He’s earnest, honest, and a touch impulsive, but he likes to follow instructions when they work in his favour.
Christopher Robin: Their best friend, and the one who knows the Forest the best. He’s revered and loved, because he encourages his friends, teaches them, gets them out of trouble, mitigates conflict, and goes on adventures with them. He believes every word they say, and he loves them unconditionally. No matter what trouble they get into, or what they do to each other, he loves them.
“Christopher Robin had spent the morning indoors going to Africa and back, and he had just got off the boat and was wondering what it was like outside, when who should come knocking at the door but Eeyore.”
Christopher Robin’s imagination never lets him down. He doesn’t question his reality, even if it means hopping back and forth between continents. Remember too, he’s four. Getting involved in your child’s fantasy world, I mean really involved, is a blast! It’s always great to have someone to go on adventures with, whether it’s a princess tea party, running the zoo, or taking a train to the pyramids. It’s not just fun, pretend play is an important part of child development. It assists the maturation of self-discipline and impulse control, as well as giving kids a safe place to process the new things they’ve learned out in the big world.
“…’But what I like doing best is Nothing.’
‘How do you do Nothing?’ asked Pooh, after he had wondered for a long time. ‘Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, What are you going to do Christopher Robin, and you say, Oh, nothing, and you go and do it.’
‘Oh, I see,’ said Pooh.
‘This is a nothing sort of thing that we’re doing right now.’
‘Oh, I see,’ said Pooh again.
‘It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear and not bothering.’ ‘Oh!’ said Pooh.”
This one is important, parents. Christopher Robin and the Art of Doing Nothing. Listen to all the things you can’t hear, enjoy the silence, and don’t worry about what you might be missing. I’m still working on perfecting this one myself.
“Pooh, promise me you won’t forget about me, ever. Not even when I’m a hundred.”
Waterworks. The request your heart want to give your children, without sounding needy and clingy. “Promise me, no matter how old and decrepit I get, you’ll always call me Mommy, and you’ll love me forever!” So as not to totally traumatize them, we usually don’t break down and make them promise. As long as we do our job, we’ll make memories for our kids that will last many lifetimes over, because they’ll tell their children about them, and their children will talk about them, and on it will go.
So, did Milne mean for any of his tales to be interpreted in any specific way? Who knows? His dedications do answer why he wrote them, though. Get those tissues ready. The beautiful, heartfelt inscriptions in each book shows a man so incredibly thankful for his family, trying to repay his wife for the best gift he had ever know, and ever would. He immortalized his son’s childhood for Daphne, his wife.
Hand in hand, here we come
Christopher Robin and I
To lay this book in your lap.
Say you’re surprised?
Say you like it?
Say it’s just what you wanted?
Because it’s yours-
Because we love you.
The House at Pooh Corner:
You gave me Christopher Robin, and then
You breathed new life in Pooh.
Whatever of each has left my pen
Goes homing back to you.
My book is ready, and comes to greet
The mother it longs to see-
It would be my present to you, my sweet,
If it weren’t your gift to me.
“By the time it came to the edge of the Forest, the stream had grown up, so it was almost a river, and, being grown-up, it did not run and jump and sparkle along as it used to when it was younger, but moved more slowly. For it knew now where it was going, and it said to itself, ‘There is no hurry. We shall get there some day.’ But all the little streams high up in the Forest went this way and that, quickly, eagerly, having so much to find out before it was too late.”
Kids are moving a mile a minute – adventuring, absorbing, applying new knowledge – and as much as we feel the pressure to make their daily activities engrossing and educational, there’s lots of time for that. Hard skills (reading, writing, math, physics, etc) can come later; help them face their Heffalumps and Woozles, watch them jump as high as a Jagular, pick up some haycorns together in the park. Be loving. Be patient. Be present. “There is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”
Here are a few quotes you can find attributed to Milne, but were actually from the various movies, not either of the book:
“A day without a friend is like a pot without a single drop of honey left inside.”
“Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.”
“You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”