My son, a rough and tumble yet oddly thoughtful four year old, came running in the front door, breathless and red-faced and nearly tripping over the threshold. “Mom! Pumba and Doof Doof just got into a really bad fight and Doof Doof’s nose came off!”
This was unlike my son’s friends. They were always adventurers, but seldom violent.
“That’s how Doof Doof lives,” my son lamented. “He is always fighting.”
I was glad it was Doof Doof who was the violent one, because he was always kind of an auxiliary friend. The real action centered on Beaky. If Beaky had been hurt, I would have worried. Beaky was, after all, my son’s closest friend.
Beaky sold hot dogs from an ice-cream cart. He was the color of pink wind. He was a shape shifter. He could get small and go down the sink drain. He was always with my son – more loyal than his dog. But he wasn’t all-powerful like a super-hero, or all-knowing, like God or a narrator. Beaky had his limitations.
One night we travelled across the Detroit River to Canada. It was only a few hours from home, but my son was intrigued by all our chat of being “in another country.” I talked it up – the big bridge, the different money, the border patrol – always looking for those teachable moments. In my effort to add mystery to a rather plain trip, I must have worried my son. Because at 2:00 in the morning I awoke to see my little boy standing in a still posture that had a kind of strained sobriety in it, only his eyes moving as he stared forlornly out the crack in the patio curtains. “Jacob, what are you doing up?”
“Mom,” he replied with a heavy and slow worry, “I’m looking for Beaky. He’s out there looking for us, but he doesn’t know the way here.”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen my son so sad.
28% of preschoolers have imaginary friends. We once thought imaginary friends were only the playmates of lonely children, but we now know that they actually increase a child’s ability to socialize with real people effectively.
Think about it. In order for the young child to concoct stories, he must bring pathos into the project. All that imagining actually helps the young child to empathize. He must put himself into the shoes of the boy whose nose was broken. My son’s imaginary friend is a mentor for his emotions. He could help my son more clearly identify his own personality. (He surely wasn’t going to fight all the time like Doof Doof and get his nose broken!) My son had to reflect on what it must be like to be confused in a foreign country. There is no doubt that as my son stared out that window, he was learning to have deep concern for the lost souls of the world.
And that is why we always took an interest in our son’s imaginary friends. They were windows into his development, his creative mind, his soul. So, we downright encouraged his tales.
“What did Pumba do today?” we asked as we sipped our milkshakes.
Never one to disappoint, our son bypassed our mundane question to inform us that Pumba’s mother had gotten so fat she could touch three planets. Ah, the math involved in that brilliant answer!
Though we always asked after his imaginary friends, we never added to their characters or the narratives of their lives. Somehow we knew instinctively that these friends were sacred to our son, and were not ours to create.
Studies show that children who have imaginary childhood friends are more creative as adults. I’m not really sure what we can take away from that bit of knowledge, because we can’t fabricate an imaginary friend for our child or take him to one like a piano lesson. But we certainly shouldn’t worry about them. We should celebrate them.
And it also turns out that imaginary friends last longer than we first guessed. Many children as old as six and seven still have imaginary friends, though oddly, they change. And they are less forthright about them. As a child develops, her friends will develop with her. The imaginary friends of early elementary children are often associated with objects, such as a favorite doll or magical elf.
There is still a lot we don’t understand about children and their imaginary friends, but I for one, could spend a lifetime hearing the storied lives of these characters. For who can doubt that they show us our children’s concerns about fighting bullies, or getting lost in strange lands, or overindulging in milkshakes? And they show us their high and noble ambitions that we can nurture and cultivate.
Our children grow and develop as they imagine all the complexities and beauty of this world they inhabit. And their imaginary friends grow along with them. On a later vacation to California, Beaky had gained some travel savvy. He did not get lost. He flew on the plane with us. Of course, he didn’t sit quietly beside us. He travelled the whole way upside down on the wing.
What are your children imagining?
Gleason, T. R. (2002). Social provisions of real and imaginary relationships in early childhood. Developmental Psychology, 38(6), 979-992. doi:http://0-dx.doi.org.eaglelink.cornerstone.edu/10.1037/0012-16184.108.40.2069
Hoff, E. (2005). A friend living inside me: The Forms and functions of imaginary companions. Imagination, Cognition and Personality. Baywood Publishing Company.