Imaginary Authority

July 27, 2007 at 4:00 pm (Uncategorized)

Our house is becoming crowded. There’s me and my husband, Jay, our three-and-a-half-year old son, Andrew, our extremely small but extremely loud tabby cat, Kate, and now a whole passel of Andrew’s friends from the Hundred Acre Woods. Neither Jay nor I can see his new buddies (and Kate, for once, is mum on the topic), but Andrew is almost constantly busy with Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Roo, Piglet, and other characters from the A. A. Milne stories. We’ve even had an occasional Heffalump pass by.

When I was a little girl, my imaginary friend was named Charlie. I don’t remember much about him, besides trying to blame him for any wrongdoing I committed. I’m not sure why Andrew has identified so thoroughly with the Pooh characters, but they have completely captivated him. We’ve read him a few of the Disney versions of the Milne classic. I like the original stories and artwork better, but the Disney books have more pictures and are pitched at the right level. Andrew has seen one Pooh movie, and has a couple of stuffed animals – a Piglet and a Tigger – that he inherited from older friends. But, starting about a month ago, the stories have come to life for him – and in him. Maybe, as an only child, he likes the idea of the communal chaos of Pooh Corner. After all, no one’s alone in those stories. Even Rabbit, who just wants peace and quiet in his carrot garden, gets perpetually knocked off his feet by bouncy Tigger. Maybe Andrew likes the wry touch that survived even the Disneyification of the stories, or perhaps his attraction is nothing deeper than finding the animals cute. Whatever the reason, Andrew is frequently engaged with his troupe of invisible friends.

“Today is Piglet’s birthday,” Andrew announced yesterday morning. “And all my friends are coming for his party.” When I asked him how old Piglet was, Andrew said, “Three, just like me, and when I’m four, Piglet will be too.” As a special treat, we baked pumpkin muffins for breakfast for the party, but Andrew whispered to me, “We must call them cupcakes not muffins so that Piglet is not disappointed for his birthday.” We lit a candle in one of the muffins—er, cupcakes—and sang “Happy Birthday.” Andrew had to help Piglet blow out the candle, though. Thank goodness he did so before Tigger arrived and knocked things around in a bouncing episode.

I have no qualms about Andrew having imaginary friends. All the child-rearing experts concur that special, pretend friends are a healthy developmental phase. I know that his life is filled with real friends and real adventures, so when he starts chatting to Eeyore about thistle, I don’t worry that he’s lonely or socially stunted. If he’s still talking with the Pooh gang in high school, I might get concerned, but, for now, I like witnessing my son’s imagination and creativity at work. The other evening, he made me a pretend ice cream sundae from his pretend ice cream cart on a pretend New York City street. Given my recent diabetic dietary limitations, I think I enjoyed imagining that ice cream almost as much as Andrew did.

I wonder sometimes if Andrew truly believes in the veracity of his imaginary friends. For a while, I thought he was playing along with a game in his head – that he was aware of the process of crafting a fictional universe. But sometimes, he takes his fakery very seriously. One evening, he collected all the pillows in the house and neatly arranged them into what he pronounced was “a birthday sheet cake” for Tigger. He then went and fetched a blanket and fastidiously covered the pillows with it. He spent a good fifteen minutes smoothing the blanket and tucking it underneath all the pillows. “There. Now Tigger’s cake is frosted.” He arrayed some of his matchbox cars on top of the blanket for cake decorations, and went off to get ready for bed. While Andrew was in the bathroom brushing his teeth, I yanked a couple of pillows out from under the frosting blanket for him to sleep on in his bed. “What have you done?” Andrew wailed, when he saw the damage I had wrought. “You ruined Tigger’s cake. I had it all ready for tomorrow,” he screamed, and then he lay his little head on the heap of mussed blankets and pillows and sobbed and sobbed, as if I had just ripped out Tigger’s heart and stomped on it with glee. I stroked his back and said how sorry I was. Eventually, Andrew’s sobs softened into hiccups and then sleep. His distress was no act. It was pretty clear that no matter what the pile of bedding looked like on the floor to my dull adult’s eyes, for my little boy, it really was a beautiful, decorated birthday cake for a special, if striped and invisible, friend.

Fortunately, most of our encounters with Andrew’s imaginary friends are more light-hearted than the pillow/cake debacle. He brings his buddies from Pooh Corner along on trips and keeps us posted on their thinking and their conversations. When we went camping at Park Lake a while ago, I was lucky enough to get help from both Andrew and Tigger collecting firewood and starting a campfire. Andrew trudged through the forest with me, looking for suitable kindling. He did a good job and carted several heavy arm loads of twigs and branches back to the fire pit. “Tigger lets me start our campfires all by myself,” he said, out of the blue. “So, I think I should start this one.” I delivered an appropriate parental warning about the dangers of starting fires and how I was surprised that Tigger would be so careless. “I expected better of Tigger,” I said. Andrew was quiet for a while, watching me arrange some shreds of paper beneath a criss-cross of kindling and smaller logs. “Tigger says that is not how to build a fire,” he pronounced. I tried not to get too huffy, and made some filler noise, like, “Really?” or “Um.” “Yes, Tigger says, absolutely, that you must put the marshmallows in first,” my son continued. “Well,” I said, “You should tell Tigger that if you put the marshmallows in first, they will all burn up– before you can eat them.” Andrew gave me a dubious look and went off to clear that up with Tigger, who must have agreed with my assessment since we heard no more from the big cat until it was time to sharpen sticks for marshmallow roasting and Andrew let us know that Tigger thought it was a good idea if Andrew was allowed to control the knife.

Since our camping trip, the Pooh characters have weighed in on topics like using sunscreen (not necessary– I suppose the trees of the Hundred Acre Wood must filter out all dangerous UV rays); brushing teeth ( again, not necessary, though you’d think all those honey pots that Pooh consumes would rot his teeth); and helping set the table (not necessary – chores don’t take place in Pooh Land). Although it can get irritating to hear, yet again, “Well, Tigger/Piglet/Pooh says…” when I ask Andrew to do something, I understand his impulse. His imaginary friends invest him with an authority on matters which before, only we, his parents, wielded. His imaginary friends give him knowledge – or, rather, allow him to frame his own knowledge. In other words, they empower him. Because the opinions come from someone as venerable as Pooh or Tigger, Andrew believes that he can now engage with us in the serious stuff of life – fire starting, knife wielding, and teeth rotting. Sure, his imaginary friends are fun to fete with birthday cakes and tea parties, but it’s even better to use them as a pack of peers against Mom and Dad. And when I say “against,” I don’t mean simply in an oppositional context – because many of our, “Well, Tigger says…” conversations are perfectly pleasant. I’m employing the preposition in its directional sense. With Tigger and the gang, he is finding a space in which to exist, to hold opinions from, to speak from, that is his own. It’s exciting to watch Andrew in this new zone of confidence.

Witnessing all this has also given me some ideas. How much better our lives would be as adults if we somehow were able to cling to the camaraderie and authority that Andrew’s imaginary friends provide. Who says we should let go of our Tiggers or Charlies in kindergarten? I, for once, could use a little help with all my interactions with doctors. Yesterday I learned that I do indeed have a stress fracture in my foot. My bones are weakened from so many years on high doses of prednisone. I was sent home in a cumbersome and heavy (but, thankfully, removable) cast. I’ve spent the day resenting my bones for breaking beneath me, resenting this itchy cast/boot contraption, and resenting my doctor for treating me. If only I could have told her, “Well, Tigger says my foot will heal without this boot thing.” Or, when my blood work looks bad, I could calmly and coolly tell her, “I won’t be needing to increase my prednisone dose. Tigger says this will resolve itself.” Or, “Tigger says I don’t need to monitor my blood sugar and change my diet. Tigger says ice cream and cake three meals a day are Tigger-iffic.”

Sadly, rather than solving my medication problems, bringing Tigger to my cause might just get my doctor to add some psychotropic drugs to my daily mix. So, I’ll keep playing the grown-up—with my cast and my glucometer and all the lousy accoutrements my life has picked up lately. It’s not too bad, though, because Andrew and Tigger are taking me out for pretend ice cream later. And Tigger says I can never have either too much ice cream or too much Andrew.


  1. Paul said,

    Can I borrow Tigger for my next Doc’s appointment????

  2. Jakob said,

    This is exactly what I expected to find out after reading the title Imaginary Authority. Thanks for informative article

  3. Lori said,

    R–as I said the other nite, Andrew reminds me so much of Cory at that age. Cory became “Quill” and Dave, I, and his friends were to call him Quill. It took me a while to figure out that “Quill” came from a song in the Pooh movie, “Pooh’s Grand Adventure,” and that, if fact, he misunderstood Quill from the work thrill in the song. But anyway, he had all those boys from Plymouth day care convinced they needed to be in his Quill club. At one point Martha called me up and asked, “What is all this Quill stuff about?” Nate must have just joined as a gang member in the newly formed club. Have fun, Lori

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