Guilty of over-sharing about your kids? Remember poor little Christopher Robin
POOR Christopher Robin. Today’s parents could take a few lessons from his story, not that of the fictional character in AA Milne’s Winnie The Pooh books, but of the real boy, the son on whom Milne based his tales. All of us, not just authors and journalists but the bloggers, Facebookers, YouTubers, Instagrammers and anyone else tempted to publish their thoughts on or images of their children on the web. For the truth about the Winnie The Pooh stories, as is partly told in the new film biopic Goodbye Christopher Robin, is that Christopher Robin Milne came to hate not only the books but his father, who wrote them.
That wasn’t always so, of course. Aged four, when the first book was published, the real-life Christopher Robin seems to have enjoyed the fame it brought him. He played his role well, painstakingly writing replies to fan letters. He even performed in a pageant and an audio-recording of the books. Yet such was the degree of his exploitation that his cousin once described it as “the unacceptable face of Pooh-dom”.
His parents’ approach of treating their son’s life as if it were something to plunder, while romanticising and delighting in it, isn’t that far from the attitude many of us exhibit today. Our children are ours. We can post whatever we like about them on social media, share funny anecdotes, create through them either a portrait of idealised childhood or a wartsand-all sharing of the realities. And why not? They’re really cute – and it brings pleasure to all.
But sharing contains perils. By the time Christopher Robin was a young adult, struggling to find a job, he began to feel that his father “had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son”.
Of course, the damage done to Christopher Robin wasn’t all attributable to the mere fact he was put in his father’s books. At nine years old, little Christopher Robin was packed off to boarding school where he found himself taunted. Meanwhile, Alan Alexander Milne, never the most natural dad, deserted the fictional Christopher Robin. Wearied by Pooh and troubled by the books’ success, he wanted to get back to writing for adults.
Christopher Robin’s story remains relevant to now. For in the overshare culture of the 21st century, we too know how to climb on our infants’ shoulders. As a journalist I’ve been there, teetering like an over-sized acrobat. I’d hope that my children haven’t strained under the weight of me. But if I’m honest, it’s hard to know. As with all things about parenting, the damage we do often takes a while to catch up with us.
Meanwhile, one person’s exploitation of their children is another person’s honesty. One reader might see over-share, another art. There’s a long history of authors, artists, photographers and bloggers who have been disparaged for the way they used their children: American photographer Sally Mann, whose naked pictures of her children caused controversy; UK authors Julie Myerson, whose The Lost Child was a memoir of her eldest son’s childhood and teenage drug habit, and Rachel Cusk, whose Aftermath is an excruciating, yet eloquent, description of her marital breakdown in which her children are shadowy figures yet acutely present.
THESE days most of us are AA Milnes of the internet: writers, bloggers and social media posters. The “mummy bloggers” of today adopt strategies that range from disguising their children’s identities to telling blushworthy tales using real names. Everyone has a different answer to what is overshare. Hurrah For Gin author Katie Kirby recently described to me her keenness not to reveal her children’s names. Last year, blogger Elizabeth Bastos confessed in the New York Times that she had decided to stop writing about her children after her own father rang up, troubled by a blog in which she’d described her son’s first signs of puberty.
What is too much to share? I don’t pretend to know the answer. We humans need to connect with each other throughout all experiences. But, as the life of Christopher Robin attests, we can be poor judges. We are bad at knowing when we have taken things too far. In the buzz of telling our own story, we forget that it is our children’s, too.