The power of Pooh
In a corner of the children’s section of the New York Public Library sit several battered, bedraggled stuffed animals. Patches of fur are missing from the stuffed donkey; the bear’s dirty feet and the tiger’s matted coat are evidence that this collection of animals has been loved. The animals were donated to the library by a publisher who obtained them from their original owner, an elderly bookseller named Christopher Milne.
Every human being has good and evil within them.
Although the animals don’t seem familiar at first, they are some of the world’s most famous imaginary friends. Christopher Milne’s full name is Christopher Robin Milne, son of A. A. Milne, creator of Winnie-the-Pooh. These stuffed animals, and Christopher Milne himself, were the inspiration behind one of the most famous pieces of children’s literature ever written.
University of Oregon developmental psychologist Marjorie Taylor has written extensively about these particular stuffed animals. Taylor studies the imaginary friends that populate the lives of children worldwide; she reassures parents that imaginary friends, and the imaginary worlds that kids create for them, are not a sign of loneliness, social maladjustment, or inability to deal with reality.
“Children with imaginary companions tend to be less shy, more able to focus their attention, and to have advanced social understanding when compared to other children,” writes Taylor in her book, Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. Taylor explains that current research has hinted that the purpose of imaginary friends may be helping children learn to control their executive function. One of the primary roles of executive function in the brain is the ability to simulate experiences. It’s much easier to practice social interaction with an imaginary partner than with a real friend.
A 2005 University of Manchester study estimates that about 25 percent of children have imaginary friends. A child’s pretend playmate can take many different forms: animals, objects, people. They can take the form of dolls, or toys, like Christopher Milne’s stuffed animal friends.
A recent Studio 360 radio program interviewed six-year-old Maxine, whose favorite imaginary friend is an ominous figure called “Devil Man.” Maxine happily explains that Devil Man kills people, but in her imaginary world, killing people just means they go to sleep, and they can wake up at any time. The horror movie genre has served up many films in which a child’s evil imaginary friend wreaks real-life havoc.
Fortunately, these are just movies. If your child comes up with a really weird or evil imaginary friend, there is no need to worry. In fact, Taylor explains that your child may be exploring the idea of empathy. As Lutheran theology acknowledges, every human being has good and evil within them; we use empathy to find the good in everyone.
Children with imaginary friends score higher on tests that focus on empathy; they’ve practiced seeing the world through the eyes of their imaginary friend, so they are better able to draw on these experiences when putting themselves in the shoes of real people.
“Children with imaginary companions tend to be less shy, more able to focus their attention, and to have advanced social understanding when compared to other children.”
Parents sometimes worry that their child’s imaginary friends may point to a lack of understanding about the difference between fantasy and reality. However, research has found that kids with imaginary companions have no trouble distinguishing between the two, even when the child has created an elaborate imaginary world for her pretend friends to live in.
Most kids grow out of imaginary friends around age 10. Christopher Robin Milne didn’t quite understand the big deal that was made about his childhood playthings. Milne was an imaginative child who preferred to be alone; rather than practice social interactions with other children, he practiced with his stuffed toys. He grew up to be a well-adjusted adult, a bookstore owner who lived a quiet life with his wife and daughter.
Although uncomfortable with all the attention he got from people coming into his bookstore wanting to meet the real Christopher Robin, Milne acknowledged that the Pooh stories hit home for many people who had also grown up with imaginary friends. Imagine that!