Young children often have imaginary friends. Sometimes they're human, other times they're animals, like the life-size rabbit in the old Jimmy Stewart movie, "Harvey." Sometimes the imaginary friend is an occasional visitor, stopping by only once every few days. But other times it may be a child's constant companion. Children may talk to their imaginary friends, draw with them, or even read books to them. And plenty of parents have had to set an extra place at the dinner table for the "friend." So are children's imaginary playmates cause for concern? In most cases, the answer is No. Imaginary friends are a pretty normal part of growing upespecially during the toddler yearsand they serve several important functions:
- They can be wonderful companions for pretend play, which is an important way to stimulate creativity and imagination. Having an invisible friend can make those long trips to the moon or back in time a little less lonely.
- They can act as a child's trusted confidant when there's no one else to tell their secrets to. Even small children have issues that are too private to tell us.
- They can help kids figure out the difference between right and wrong. Kids sometimes have a tough time stopping themselves from doing things they know are wrong. Blaming the imaginary friend for eating cookies before dinner is often a sign that the child understands right vs. wrong distinctions but isn't quite ready to assume complete responsibility for her actions.
- They can give you some valuable insights into your child's feelings. Listening to your child bravely comfort an invisible friend who's about to get a shot may be a clue that your child is more afraid than she's letting on.
While it's generally perfectly fine to humor your child and go along with her claims about the existence of an imaginary friend, there are a few ground rules:
- Don't let the "friend" be your child's only companion. Kids need to socialize with others their own ages. If your child seems to have no other friends or has no interest in being with her peers, talk to your pediatrician.
- Don't let your child shift responsibility for everything bad to the friend. Saying that the friend is the one responsible for a nighttime accident is okay. Blaming the friend for a string of bank robberies isn't.
- Treat the friend with respect. This means remembering his name, greeting him when you meet, and apologizing when you sit on him.
- Don't use the friend to manipulate your child. That means no comments like "Maggie finished her dinner, why don't you finish yours?"
Most kids lose their imaginary friends between their third and fifth birthdays. Sometimes the friends are forgotten, sometimes they're sent on a distantand permanenttrip, and other times they "die" in a horrible accident.
A nationally recognized parenting expert, Armin Brott is the author of Father for Life, The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be; The New Father: A Dad's Guide to the First Year, A Dad's Guide to the Toddler Years, Throwaway Dads, and The Single Father: A Dad's Guide to Parenting without a Partner. He has written on parenting and fatherhood for the New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Newsweek and dozens of other periodicals. He also hosts "Positive Parenting", a nationally distributed, weekly talk show, and lives with his family in Oakland, California. Visit Armin at www.mrdad.com.