Imaginary friends are a charming part of early childhood and beyond. Between one half and two thirds of children create such friends, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Some children create imaginary companions that are ordinary playmates with common names. Other companions have unusual qualities, like the ability to fly or magical eyes that can see around corners and over long distances. Imaginary companions are also sometimes animals, such as a friendly monster who comes out at bedtime or a group of cows that need bottles and diapers. These fantastical friends may stay long enough to play for an afternoon, or become part of the family for months or years.
Imaginary friends are usually classified into two types: invisible companions and personified objects. Invisible companions may have no basis in reality, but some are based on real people, or on story, movie, or television characters. Personified objects are usually stuffed animals or dolls that children animate and treat as people, much like Christopher Robin thought of Winnie the Pooh in A. A. Milne’s children’s stories. Most imaginary companions are regarded as friends or playmates, although children with personified objects sometimes nurture them the way a parent nurtures a child.
Many imaginary friends appear when children are in preschool. However, children in elementary school also have pretend friends, although they may talk about them with others less frequently than younger children do. Moreover, adolescents who keep journals sometimes address them to imaginary friends, suggesting that this type of fantasy is not limited to one age group.
In general, children with imaginary friends are similar to children without them. The two groups tend not to differ in intelligence, creativity, or shyness. Preschool children with imaginary friends have just as many real friends as do their peers, so the idea that children create pretend friends because they have no real friends is unfounded. Children with and without imaginary friends differ most often in birth order and sociability. Specifically, firstborn or only children are more likely to have imaginary friends than children who are later-born. As for sociability, although the differences are modest, children with imaginary companions appear to be highly sociable, cooperating willingly with adults and peers and participating in social activities within the family. These children may also have a predisposition toward fantasy play, preferring pretense over other activities. Lastly, some studies find that more girls than boys create imaginary companions, although boys engage in other types of imaginative play.
Children who create imaginary friends know that these companions are not real. These children are just as good at distinguishing between fantasy and reality as children without imaginary friends. In fact, having an imaginary friend appears to facilitate the development of social cognition, or thinking about other people. For example, the creation of an imaginary companion has been positively related to the development of theory of mind, or the ability to explain and predict other peoples’ behavior in terms of their beliefs, thoughts, and desires. Pretending to have an imaginary friend may give children practice in thinking about other minds and may help them to appreciate the fact that what a person thinks and what is actually true may not be the same.
Although children with imaginary companions are often portrayed by the media as suffering from psychopathology, almost all children with imaginary companions create them for fun and in the course of play. The orientation toward fantasy and social interaction shown by these children appears to manifest in their creation of imaginary friends when other people, especially siblings and peers, are not available to play with them.
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