Q: Several months back, our just-turned 3-year-old son invented an imaginary friend whom he calls Larry. We’re worried because he seems involved to the point of being obsessed with him. He plays with Larry almost constantly, talking to him all the while. When we go somewhere, I have to pretend that Larry is coming along too. I’ve drawn the line at setting a place at the table for him, explaining to our son that I feed Larry after he’s gone to bed. When our son is with other children his age, he plays well, but has a sort of take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward play dates. I’ve heard that some kids this age have imaginary friends, but this seems a bit much. What do you think?
A: I think today’s parents—moms, especially—worry entirely too much about anything that seems to fall even a tad outside the boundaries of normal behavior. That tendency is exacerbated by the fact that as a culture, we seem to have forgotten that children can be odd at times, some more than others. Lots of odd in a child may be cause for concern, but one odd thing rarely merits more than a tolerant shrug.
I’m actually glad to hear that there are still kids out there who possess magnificent imaginations. Before television, video games, and other electronic suppressants, imaginary friends were commonplace. Both of my children had imaginary playmates. Eric had Jackson Jonesberry and Amy had Shinyarinka Sinum. No kidding. These playmates, who seemed quite real to the kids, occupied lots of their time, which was just fine with their mother and me.
Another factor I think has contributed to the demise of the imaginary playmate is the corresponding increase in parents who play with their children. Some playful interaction between parent and child is fine, of course, but a line can be crossed at which point the child becomes dependent upon the parent for entertainment. When children were expected to entertain themselves for the most part, they were forced to be much more creative and imaginative than today’s kids seem, on the whole, to be.
Unobstructed by electronics or over-involved parents, the imaginary friend usually makes his or her appearance around a child’s third birthday. These friends are quite real to the kids in question—call them “functional hallucinations”—evidenced by the fact that a child is apt to become quite indignant, even upset, if someone denies that his friend actually exists.
Imaginary friends are a positive influence in a number of important ways. Most obviously, they are both a product of and a stimulant to imagination. They exercise and help to expand children’s creative capacities. These fictional friends also help develop social skills, especially the ability to give-and-take. They promote self-reliance; specifically, the ability to self-occupy, which is obviously good for both parents and children. Because children talk constantly to their imaginary friends, they strengthen language skills. In short, there’s everything good and nothing bad about these hallucinatory companions. They usually disappear by the fifth birthday, but even the occasional appearance beyond that point is nothing to be concerned about.
My advice: Relax and enjoy the break.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parent questions at www.rosemond.com.