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. When our son is with other children his age, he plays well. What do you think?
A: I think today’s parents worry too much about anything that seems to fall even a tad outside the boundaries of normal behavior. As a culture, we seem to have forgotten that children can be odd at times. Lots of odd things in a particular child may be cause for concern, but one odd thing rarely merits more than a tolerant shrug.
I’m actually glad to hear there are still kids who possess magnificent imaginations. Before television, video games and other electronic suppressants, imaginary friends were commonplace. Both of my children had them. 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 fine with their mother and me.
Another factor I think has contributed to the demise of the imaginary playmate is the increase in parents who play with their children. Some playful interaction 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 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 indignant if someone denies his friend exists.
Imaginary friends are a positive influence in a number of important ways. They help to expand children’s creative capacities. They also help develop social skills, especially the ability to give and take. They promote self-reliance; specifically, the ability to self-occupy, which is good for both parents and children. Because children talk constantly to their imaginary friends, they strengthen language skills. 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.