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The Power of Make-Believe

6 minute read
Sora Song

It’s not likely to win and oscars, but the new Robert De Niro thriller, Hide and Seek, which revolves arounda little girl’s obsession with an imaginary friend named Charlie, taps into something quite real: the confusion and fear parents experience when their children start paying more attention to made-up companions than flesh-and-blood friends. Are kids who do so lonely or crazy or crying for help?

In most cases none of the above, says psychologist Marjorie Taylor of the University of Oregon, who with her colleague Stephanie Carlson at the University of Washington has conducted a study of kids and their fictional companions. Not only are such creations common–65% of children up to age 7 played with at least one imaginary friend at some point in their lives, according to a paper Taylor and Carlson published in Developmental Psychology late last year–but they may give children who dream them up a developmental advantage.

The first thing to understand about imaginary playmates, says Taylor, is that for most children they are just that: playmates. They’re designed to provide companionship and entertainment. Unlike real kids, they don’t have to get cranky, throw tantrums or sulk when they lose a game. And they often can do things and go places the child can’t. Skateboard Guy, for example, described by one child in Taylor’s study, is a tiny, invisible 11-year-old boy who sleeps in the child’s shirt pocket and performs amazing skateboard tricks the child wishes he could do.

Of course, not all imaginary friends are so versatile or well behaved. Children often complain about invisible friends who won’t share or are too loud, too bossy, too stubborn or too busy to play. One child had a make-believe pal who was such a pill he named her Darn It.

Bad as these friends seem, they are not necessarily signs of a troubled mind. They may, in fact, be stepping stones on the road of emotional development. Negotiating with temperamental imaginary friends can be a way for kids to work out real-life issues. “There are themes that children are mulling over and trying to understand in their play,” says Taylor. “Being busy is one of them. Meanness and bossiness are also things children think about when they talk about their real friends.”

Indeed, what imaginary friends say and do can be a useful window into a child’s mind. Four years ago, Quinn Pascal, 6, a bubbly first-grader from Eugene, Ore., invented Elfie-Welfie, an invisible woman with piles of tie-dyed hair and a menagerie of “dozens of zillions, katrillions” of imaginary animals. Quinn’s mother Kate says Quinn uses Elfie-Welfie to play out some very real desires. In Elfie-Welfie’s world, Quinn was allowed on the rides at the fair. (In real life, Quinn was too small.) Elfie-Welfie had an orange cat named Stripey. (Quinn desperately wanted a pet.) Elfie-Welfie promised she would give Quinn a little brother or sister. (Quinn is an only child.) “[Elfie-Welfie] was my reality check,” says Kate. “There were times I would ask Quinn what she was thinking about, and she would say, ‘Oh, I was just thinking about how Elfie-Welfie smiles all the time.’ And, sure enough, I’d been having a rough day and grumbling around.”

Children who play with imaginary companions may have an edge over their peers. They tend to have better verbal skills and are better at understanding other points of view, according to Taylor and Carlson. Earlier studies suggested that children with imaginary friends may have above-average IQs, be more creative and smile and laugh more on the playground than other kids. “Children with pretend friends are actually less shy and more sociable than children without them,” says Taylor. “It’s almost the opposite of what you might think.”

How far should parents go to accommodate the demands of pretend friends? Taylor recalls one child who forced her family to wait at restaurants for a table big enough to fit her nonexistent companions. Another little girl’s imaginary friend was so ill the child wouldn’t leave her unsupervised at home. Taylor’s advice is to try to find solutions within the boundaries of a child’s fantasy. To handle the sick friend, for example, the parents created another imaginary friend specifically to be a caretaker.

The interplay of real and imaginary doesn’t have to stop at the end of childhood. In her newest research, Taylor is interviewing fiction writers and finding that they interact with their characters in some ways that parallel children’s make-believe play. Authors often report that their characters seem to have autonomous lives, dictating their own dialogue, controlling the plot of stories and sometimes refusing to do what the authors ask of them. Some writers maintain personal relationships with characters outside their fictions. Novelist Alice Walker says she lived with her characters for a year while writing The Color Purple, even moving from New York City to Northern California to please them. They didn’t like the tall buildings and city congestion, she says.

“Imaginary friends are often seen as a symptom of some illness or malaise, and maybe sometimes they are,” says author Ben Rice, whose 2000 novel, Pobby and Dingan, is based on his wife’s childhood fantasy companions. “But I think sometimes they are just a creative outlet, a way of interpreting the world.”

Rice’s novel is about a child, Kellyanne, whose two imaginary friends are lost. Set in a mining town in the Australian outback, Pobby and Dingan features characters who are all looking for things–missing friends, a mother lode of gems–that seem impossible to find. A movie version of the novel was filmed last year, and producer Lizie Gower says that by the end of the shoot, the imaginary characters had taken on a life of their own. Crew members set places for them at the table and bought them lollipops. The 11-year-old actress who plays Kellyanne kept company with the characters off camera, her own imaginary friends having kindly agreed to step aside while she worked with Pobby and Dingan. “It was extraordinary, watching this girl and seeing the real enjoyment she got from them,” says Gower. “It’s taught me a lot about being tolerant of other people’s thoughts and beliefs.”

Of course, adults have a tendency to overthink these things. Taylor says that during interviews in her lab, as researchers peppered the kids with questions and scribbled down notes, some of the children grew concerned that the researchers were getting confused. One of the kids leaned over and reminded her interviewer, “It’s just pretend, you know.”

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