New research on pretend friends.

Keeping an eye on kids and parents.
Feb. 1 2005 4:21 PM

Are Imaginary Companions Good for Kids?

What psychologists don't see about pretend friends.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

If your child hasn't had any imaginary companions, you may want to make up some before his or her preschool interviews roll around. Based on a sample of 100 children, the authors of a recent article called "The Characteristics and Correlates of Fantasy in School-Age Children: Imaginary Companions, Impersonation, and Social Understanding"are pleased to report that 65 percent of 7-year-olds in the United States say they've had a pretend friend at some point in their short lives. As their title indicates, Marjorie Taylor and Stephanie M. Carlson (the primary researchers) consider conversing with, say, an invisible 160-year-old businessman named Nobby anything but silly. Their mission is to show how salutary it can be—a healthy indication of cognitive and social awareness. Amid mounting alarm about the commercialization of childhood, the message they deliver is well-timed for its moment: Wholesome "fantasy is alive and well in the lives of school-age children." No wonder their study got the kind of media coverage rarely bestowed on articles in Developmental Psychology.

In case you've forgotten that imaginary companions haven't always gotten such a good rap, the box-office hit Hide and Seek is here to remind you with the fearsome Charlie, a pretend friend who refuses to follow the edifying script dictated by the current zeitgeist. An unseen instigator of bloody deeds, he is a throwback to the days when imagined playmates made parents and psychological experts worry about children's mental stability. In fact, Charlie succeeds in turning Robert de Niro, playing the psychologist father of Charlie's inventor (big-eyed Dakota Fanning), into as much of a basket case as his daughter. What ensues is a parody of dark fantasy run wild, a scene of mayhem that points up an unacknowledged paradox at the heart of the current quest to rehabilitate pretend friends: Contemporary psychologists risk domesticating a phenomenon that, for good as well as ill, thrives on at least some freedom from sober adult investigation.

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For most of the 20th century, the experts generally kept their distance from the often peculiar figments of childish imaginations. Jean Piaget, the pioneer of cognitive psychology, relegated pretend friends to the immature stage of "magical thinking," which children needed to outgrow to achieve cognitive competence. The view in psychoanalytic circles was more darkly dismissive. "The notion has got around that imaginary companions are evidence of 'insecurity,' and 'withdrawal,' and a latent neurosis," lamented Selma Fraiberg, an early booster of pretend friends, in The Wonder Years (1959). Certainly that was the opinion of America's favorite Freudian popularizer, Dr. Spock. Parents whose children were "spending a large part of each day telling about imaginary friends or adventures" were gently urged to supply more "hugging and piggyback rides." Spock didn't come right out and warn of incipient personality disorders, but the doctor who said that "a little imagination is a good thing" plainly did not feel the same way about a lot of imagination. If kids were still absorbed in such fantasies at 4, Dr. Spock advised that "a child psychiatrist, child psychologist, or other mental health counselor should be able to find out what they are lacking."

These days pretend friends are a hot topic, and almost exactly the opposite wisdom prevails. Taylor and Carlson, who teach in the psychology departments of, respectively, the University of Oregon and the University of Washington, welcome the unexpected discovery that children, far from being done with pretend pals at 4, are slightly more likely to have them later: The pair reports that 31 percent of 6- and 7-year-olds say they have imaginary companions, compared to 28 percent of preschoolers. And like other researchers and parenting experts, they're interested in the emotional ballast, sense of competence, and social perception that pretend friends can potentially provide. Taylor and Carlson scrounge for correlations between having such friends and displaying "emotion understanding"; their wispy results don't stop them from looking forward eagerly to further research they expect will link older children's "role-play activities" with their "social cognitive development."

It's a refrain among the researchers who have lately flocked to this terrain that Piaget and the Freudians, blinkered by their own adult-centric agendas, gave imaginary companions "a bad rap." But the celebratory approach they take instead is curiously adult-oriented, too. Where their clinical and academic predecessors disparaged pretend friends as symptoms of children's egocentric inadequacies or neurotic peculiarities, contemporary psychologists are determined to do the reverse: They emphasize the usefulness of a proclivity they associate with crucial mature capacities—the ability to distinguish reality and fantasy, and to feel empathy. A leading scholar in the field, Paul L. Harris, proposes a direct adult analogy: Kids swept up in pretend play are like grown-ups caught up in reading fiction (or watching drama). They're trying out alternate viewpoints, probing causal sequences, revising interpretations of changing situations—honing the capacity to take others' perspectives, he speculates, a skill that gave our language-speaking species powers of narrative dialogue that proved highly adaptive.

It's an intriguing theory, yet the title of Harris' book—The Work of the Imagination—suggests what's missing from this rather doggedly instrumental focus: the spirit of play. After all, these researchers are exploring a phenomenon that encompasses, for example, fondness for a 2-inch-tall, green-furred, good-humored dog named Alicia. If children's pretend activities are all about adapting to social reality, the cognitive psychologist Alison Gopnik has astutely asked, why do they spend so much time dreaming up such far-fetched creatures? (Soon enough, the answer may be so that they can impress the researchers who come knocking.)

And if researchers like Taylor and Carlson are right to suggest that consorting with fantasy companions is a helpful step in becoming empathetic, sociable people, perhaps their study is less encouraging than the hype suggested. What got overlooked in the media excitement over how many school-age kids claim to have had pretend friends is how broadly Taylor and Carlson define the category of imaginary companion. In addition to invisible creations, they include stuffed animals with names, as well as characters that kids impersonate. Given such loose standards, it's not so clear we should be marveling that two-thirds of 7-year-olds mention some made-up pal.

If anything, perhaps we should worry at the finding that only slightly more than a quarter of preschoolers fit Taylor and Carlson's sweeping criteria for having imaginary friends. After all, pretending is the main active, as opposed to passive, pastime that preliterate kids (even the most prosaic) are equipped to enjoy in their spare time. Only one of my kids briefly had what I would consider a true pretend friend—poor Shoshita, who took the blame for everything that went wrong. But both kids would have been twiddling their preschool thumbs without Fudge or Patches or Suds (or some other member of a large plush retinue, all endowed with personalities) to deploy in assorted dramas—dramas that often featured the two of them down on all fours, barking, with me pressed into service as their "master." What could all those preschoolers who say they've never had an imaginary companion—no invisible friend, no stuffed sidekick, no alter ego who engaged them for at least a while—possibly be doing? I can't help hoping they're lying to nosy parents and professional investigators. That's what a fiendish pretend friend like Charlie would recommend, knowing just how to drive the grown-ups crazy.