The ‘Trespassers Will’ of Childhood

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No offense, Walt Disney. But to really understand the magic of Winnie-the-Pooh, you need to read it.

Open the book and you walk into a comfortable, wryly funny and beautiful world. You track Woozles. You attend birthday parties. You sail through the Hundred Acre Wood in an umbrella. My mom read A.A. Milne’s beloved stories about Pooh and Christopher Robin to me ’til the book’s binding broke. They form the foundation of some pretty great childhood memories.

I loved Pooh. Still do. The real Christopher Robin? That’s another story.

Such is the revelation of Goodbye Christopher Robin, a movie out this week (in a very limited number of theaters) that goes down like a lemon drop: sweet, then sour and, ultimately, satisfying.

Our review will unpack the movie in greater detail, but the upshot is this: Before Winnie-the-Pooh became everyone’s favorite talking bear, it was the private plaything of Billy Moon—the name Christopher Robin was known by at home. Christopher was, in all likelihood, closer to the stuffed bear in his early years than he was to his own father, Milne. The playwright, already well known by the early 1920s, comes across as distant, even cold, and struggling with his horrific memories of World War I.

But when Milne’s wife leaves him and Billy’s nanny departs to care for her sick mother, Milne and Billy must take care of each other. And because they have no other choice, the two bond—in part over Pooh. They tromp through the woods around their Sussex farm and dive deep into the world of Billy’s imagination. Milne invites an illustrator, Ernest H. Shepard, to share the moments, too. During the span of two weeks, the Pooh and Christopher Robin we know—the literary characters loved by millions—came to be.

But as Milne introduces the world to this magical world, the magic that made it all possible begins to slip away. Billy—now known across the country as the Christopher Robin—gets roped into a harried schedule of photo ops and interviews. “Why does everyone like Winnie-the-Pooh so much?” he grouses. “He’s my bear. Why don’t they get their own bears?” His fame makes him a target when he heads off to school.

And then, when an adult Billy Moon heads off to World War II himself, he confronts his father over his lost childhood. “We played in the woods,” he says, “and then it all stopped. As if it was a bit of research.”

Milne and son eventually reconcile in the movie, and Billy comes to appreciate the gift that his dad gave the world. But still, that conversation stopped me cold.

I’m not so different than Milne, perhaps. I’ve written about my kids ever since they were born. Truth be told, I still write about them, even now that they’re grown. My writing hasn’t made any of us famous, and thank goodness for that. But what if it had? How would my children feel about that? About me?

It makes me think about the Christopher Robins we’re creating today.

Thanks to YouTube and social media, kids have more opportunities to become stars than ever before. Some actually seek out stardom, creating their own YouTube channels where they unbox Legos or do science experiments. Business Insider recently wrote a story about 11 YouTube megastars who are under the age of 12. (Ironic, considering that technically, YouTube says that that kids need to be 13 or older before they can even use their services.)

Parents facilitate these channels, of course, and most take a big hand in shaping the shows. But at least the children themselves have some input. They are, presumably, willing participants, even if they’re perhaps too young to understand all the ramifications of internet fame.

But that’s not always the case.

We’ve all seen fantastic YouTube vids featuring babies and toddlers and little kids, recorded unawares and engaged in any number of adorable actions. As a parent, it’s natural to want to share your kids’ with the world, especially when they’re being particularly cute. Who wouldn’t?

But where’s the line between sharing a cute moment using your kids to stoke your own collection of likes and shares? And does there come a point when a child’s online popularity becomes a detriment to that very same child?

Michael and Heather Martin became YouTube stars on the backs of their children. Their DaddyOFive YouTube account boasted more than 760,000 subscribers, and they swore their children loved to participate. But the videos sometimes told a different story. They’d play pranks on their five kids—accusing them of making messes that they hadn’t, for instance, or smashing an Xbox game—and sometimes yell at them ’til they cried.

The Martins lost custody of their five children in May. They contracted the Fallston Group, a crisis management agency, to manage the fallout, and through it they expressed their remorse.

“They now fully understand that they crossed the line and they describe how what started out as family fun quickly escalated into shock value for the purpose of viewership and subscriptions,” the group wrote in a blog post. “They were caught up in their own characters and popularity—they were blinded by YouTube fame and again, upon reflection, made some very poor decisions.”

In the book Winnie-the-Pooh, we learn that Piglet, Pooh’s frequent companion, lives in a beech tree next to a sign that says “Trespassers W.” Piglet believes that it’s short for “Trespassers William,” the name of his grandfather. Adult readers know that it’s actually a broken warning sign: “Trespassers will be shot” or “run off the property” or some such.

I wonder sometimes if, in our own enthusiasm and given so many delightful tools with which to share, we sometimes trespass on our own children’s childhoods. We turn private family moments public when maybe we shouldn’t. And if we do, what the upshot for it all might be.