Imaginary Friends

Eliza Clark
March 9, 2009

In our musings on the various facets of preschooler friendships this month, have we perhaps failed to mention one of the most significant friends in your child's life? We're talking about your darling's imaginary friend (or friends). The one she's actually talking to when she seems to be muttering to herself in her room. The one who is sitting next to him in the back seat of the car wherever you go. The one whom she insists needs his own place setting at the dinner table. The one he makes room for in the bed and whispers to while falling asleep.

If you have a child between the ages of three and seven-years-old, this may all sound very familiar. Because having some kind of imaginary companion for a time is more common than not for young children. One study found that two-thirds of children develop an imaginary friendship during these years. The experience has been beautifully depicted in fiction (J.D. Salinger's poignant story "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" in Nine Stories) and memoir (Adam Gopnik's essay on his three-year-old daughter's friend "Charlie Ravioli" in Through the Children's Gate is priceless); and you've likely heard  tales of these make-believe beings from your fellow parent friends.

The wonderful news is that it's all for the good. Those little friends whom you will never meet are helping your child do important developmental work. Hand in invisible hand, your little one and his make-believe buddies are practicing the art of conversation, developing imagination and creativity, testing the boundaries between what is real and what is pretend, and giving expression to feelings and preoccupations that might never emerge by other means.

So don't be concerned (unless your little one resists socializing with real-life peers). But do eavesdrop even more intently than you ordinarily do on your little one's conversations with her pals -- you'll learn a lot about what is on her mind. And be sure to treat this companion with due respect. By all means, set that place at the table; this little guest can at least be trusted not to spill food on the floor -- phew! 

For more expert insight into the topic that we can provide, allow us steer you to Marjorie Taylor's valuable book Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them.

From the Parents

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