The Parent 'Hood: Is an imaginary friend cause for concern of just part of learning and growing up?
Your 6-year-old has an imaginary friend. Is this normal? Cause for concern?
Parent advice (from our panel of staff and reader contributors):
When she was little, my daughter had an imaginary friend named Michael. He was modeled after a character on the TV show “Barney.” I probably humored the phase a little too much when I walked around our neighborhood with her ringing doorbells and looking for Michael! My second-born, a son, had a friend named Tigger. Both children grew to be very creative and outgoing young people. The key is to accept the reality (for them) of their imaginary friend — within reason. I wouldn’t recommend canvassing the neighborhood. At one house, someone actually answered the door, and I was forced to ask if Michael lived there.
— Mary Rayis
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Normal, as long as your 6-year-old lets you know about the friend and includes you in the fun. If the imaginary friend becomes an excuse for bad behavior (“My friend told me to do it”) or your 6-year-old becomes withdrawn from non-imaginary people, then it might be time to send the friend packing.
— Dodie Hofstetter
Absolutely normal and even cause for celebration, given what it may portend for your child, says Harvard professor of education Paul L. Harris, who wrote “The Work of the Imagination” (Wiley-Blackwell).
“If you test a child with an imaginary companion on various tests of so-called social cognition — understanding what’s going on in the mind of someone else — they tend to be a bit more advanced than a child without an imaginary companion,” Harris says. “Not very surprisingly, they are often more inventive and richer in their imagination.”
And imagination, Harris says, is an important part of language development.
“What pretend and imagination tell us about human beings is that from around 2 years of age, children can conjure up hypothetical situations that don’t exist in reality,” he says. “Often when we use language, we’re talking about things we’re not actually witnessing at the time. If we confined our conversations to remarks about the current weather or the fact that we’re standing in line at Whole Foods, our conversations would be highly restricted. But we talk about places and activities and events not taking place at the moment. We tell our partners what happened during the day. We speculate about what we’re going to do on vacation. We speak in regretful fashion about what we could have done but didn’t do. We entertain situations that are not current.”
Children with imaginary pals are practicing and honing those conversation skills, along with a few others: empathy and compromise among them.
“If you talk to children with imaginary companions, it’s not all sweet and rosy,” Harris says. “Sometimes they squabble or have an argument, and you get the sense that the imaginary companion has a mind of its own. So the child is in this interesting position of having to defend their point of view even as they act out the other point of view.”
If you’re still having a hard time wrapping your head around your child’s pretend relationship, bear in mind that kids have a variety of coping mechanisms for making sense of the world around them. A friendship with an imaginary pal, Harris points out, is not dissimilar to a child’s affection for a favorite book.
“The child wants to be in the company of this story and will ask to hear the story over and over and sometimes take the storybook to bed with them,” Harris says. “They use the storybook to kind of regulate their own emotions and might ask for the story to console themselves.
“It’s an imaginative encounter that the child can regulate.”
Have a solution? Your son’s pal has a very difficult mother. Should you step in or step off? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.