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Three's a Crowd When Parenting a Child (and His Imaginary Friend)

When a child introduces an imaginary friend to the family, it doesn't mean he is having problems. It doesn't mean he's a creative genius either. Sometimes a friend is just a friend.

I met Beady a year or so ago. Beady has a different kind of name because he’s a different sort of kid. At least I think he’s a kid.

Beady has been my nephew's best friend for over a year. Even though he’s imaginary, Beady has touched a lot of lives.

We parents love to put a good spin on things. When our child chats up the broodingly-silent invisible friend, we think he’s a creative genius. As time goes on, the child will create an entire back story for his new friend that includes details on relatives, schools, favorite foods and when he likes to go to bed--which is usually “never.” You can’t help but get caught up in the intensely-real descriptions.

On the other hand, if Uncle Lou started speaking to his imaginary friend, we’d all think he were having a psychotic break or we’d search his home for hidden bottles. Funny how a couple of years and wrinkles changes how we view things.

All the while we’re praising the child’s individual spirit, we’re harboring a secret worry: Maybe he’s turning to an imaginary friend because he’s missing something or something’s wrong. Even worse, maybe he’s created an imaginary friend because he’s unhappy. Gasp.

We start out in the creative zone, but during our stream-of-consciousness internal debate we bring it around to the same point:  Did I do something to cause this? Mommy guilt kicks in quickly. It’s the one constant in this parenting game. Something as interesting as a child creating an imaginary friend gets turned around in a parent’s head.

Marjory Taylor, a professor at the University of Oregon, and Stephanie Carlson of the University of Washington, studied children and their imaginary friends. They concluded that 65 percent of children age seven and younger have played with at least one imaginary friend. 

Here’s what the researchers found out:

  • Imaginary friends are fairly common.
  • Children with imaginary friends tend to be able to empathize with another person’s perspective easier than those without imaginary friends.
  • They focus well.
  • A child with an imaginary friend isn’t withdrawn or shy. In fact, these children tend to be less shy than other children.

Taylor went on to author the book: Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. She also sponsors the website Imaginary Companions. The site, she explains is designed to give information to teachers, researchers, parents and anyone who wants to learn more about children and their imaginary companions.

The funny thing about the imaginary friend is that when he suddenly disappears, we’re a little sad. It’s another rite of passage, another step the child has taken.

As a parent you learn to recognize the many points you know you’ll never see again---giving up the bottle, potty training, first day of school, loss of first tooth. When the imaginary friend disappears without saying goodbye, we realize he played a role in the family, and he’ll be missed.

Lisa Rossi April 27, 2011 at 04:07 PM
I had an imaginary friend when I was a child and her name was Katie. And she was awesome! She didn't take any guff from anyone! Thanks for the column, I enjoyed it!
Mary Hoffman April 27, 2011 at 10:45 PM
I not only had one imaginary friend as a child, but two ---- Jomie and Kookie. I never thought much about them over the years until my toddler (back around 1988) was conversing with his imaginary friends. Yes, my son not only had one imaginary friend, but two as well --- Gudie and Chivitz. I suppose the imagination doesn’t fall far from the family tree. Loved the article, Kim.
Kim Remesch April 28, 2011 at 01:57 PM
I had commented on this, but it disappeared. I didn't have an imaginary friend, so now I feel left out. My kids would tell you I had imaginary friend as an adult. LOL. One day my daughter turned to me as we were driving and said, "You know we see your lips moving, right?" I tried to tell her I was singing to myself. She said, "no...no...you talk to yourself." Caught in the act. Now I feel left out that I didn't have one. Mary, I think you ended up with my friend.
Mary Hoffman April 28, 2011 at 09:04 PM
Kim - Have you noticed that posts disappear and then sometimes come back and then are rearranged out of order? What's up with that? Anyway - what if my imaginary friends were fraternal twins? :-o Who says we can’t share imaginary friends anyway? :-) By the way - I talk to myself too. Hey - who is a better listener to what we have to say but us? Ha!
Kim Remesch May 02, 2011 at 03:02 PM
Mary, yes, I've noticed that. I thought I was losing my mind. I think I started talking to myself because I came from a talkative household, and couldn't finish a conversation.

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