Children helped by imaginary friends
Sydney Morning Herald, June 3, 2009.
Princess Margaret had a naughty one. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that they were “sure to be present, abroad or at home, when children are happy and playing alone”.
Parents may fret about children having imaginary friends, but researchers say unseen playmates are really teaching infants the art of communication.
“Having an imaginary friend is a good thing,” Evan Kidd, a La Trobe University psychologist, said.
Dr Kidd and a University of Manchester colleague, Ms Anna Roby, asked children aged from four to six to describe pictures in a book. Those with mysterious companions proved to be significantly better communicators than children [without such companions].
That made sense, Dr Kidd said. To communicate information to another person, “you have to understand what they need to know”. That required practice. “When you have an imaginary friend, you have to invent both sides of the conversation.”
It was a myth that children could not tell the difference between real and fantasy friends. Some in the study had totally imaginary playmates. Others gave life to objects, such as teddy bears. But many would interrupt their talks about their fantasy friends to note: “It’s not true, you know. It’s only pretend.”
Children sought to understand the world around them by having imaginary companions act out roles. “My favourite,” Dr Kidd said, “was a boy with an imaginary wife and an imaginary baby. But the wife wasn’t the mother of his child. The mother was a nurse who travelled internationally. When asked where the wife was, the boy replied: ‘I divorced her. She talked too much’.”
It was also normal for children to blame some wrong they had done on fantasy friends. “They are separating the good self from the bad self.”
Princess Margaret, Dr Kidd said, had a troublesome, make-believe friend named Cousin Halifax. “I wouldn’t imagine too many modern-day families have a Cousin Halifax.”
One of 15 “early-career scientists” presenting research findings at Fresh Science, an [Australian] Federal Government-sponsored project, Dr Kidd advised parents of children with fantasy friends “to enjoy it. My worry is that people try to hide it.”