Today’s parents tend to worry about all manner of things that do not deserve second thoughts. Imaginary friends, for example. I’ve been asked many times by mothers if they should worry that their preschoolers have imaginary friends they seem to think — and in some cases even insist — are real.
I’m not aware of any specific research on the subject, but I’ve long thought that imaginary friends sharpen language and social skills and probably even improve overall neurological functioning. As they are a product of imagination, they exercise creative abilities. Perhaps best of all, imaginary friends keep young children occupied and out from underfoot. Celebrate them!
Both of my kids had imaginary friends. Eric’s was Jackson Jonesberry. For Amy, it was Shinyarinka Sinum. They would play for hours at a time with these playmates, both of whom showed up rather suddenly and then, about a year later in each case, simply disappeared and were never spoken of again.
Along these same lines, parents need not be concerned about young children who tell fantastical stories about things they claim have happened to them but obviously have not — a 4-year-old who insists that he actually rode a dragon and fought and defeated an evil wizard, for example.
Some parents mistakenly think these stories are lies and must be punished. No, this is not lying. By definition, lying is either harmful to other people or purposefully meant to conceal wrongdoing. A 4-year-old who insists he rode a dragon and fought a wizard is guilty of neither.
Parents once asked me about their 4-year-old who told such creative tales fairly often and could not be threatened or even punished into admitting they were not the truth. Did he, they asked, have a problem distinguishing fantasy from reality? Of course he did, but this is nothing to be concerned about with a child this age who is functioning normally otherwise. He is simply highly imaginative, and the imagination of a child is a thing to be treasured — especially in these digital times.
And while I’m on the subject: Please, parents, do not give toddlers and preschoolers digital, screen-based devices with which to occupy themselves. There’s no evidence that these gadgets (you know their names) produce future computer geniuses and a growing body of evidence that they interfere with normal brain development. Young children need to be engaged in play that is, for the most part, self-directed and open-ended; play that involves gross- and fine-motor skills.
Playing with other children, which strengthens social skills, should be balanced with a certain amount of solitary play that strengthens imagination and creative thinking. That’s right! Play dates are fine, but young children also need to play by themselves. Eminent developmental psychologist Burton White ("The First Three Years of Life") said he regarded the ability to play independently for at least an hour at a time on a regular basis as the best marker of good development in a 3-year-old.
So if your youngster is playing in his room, chattering away as if there’s another child with him (but you know there isn’t), don’t go "check." Just leave well enough alone.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions on his websites, johnrosemond.com and parentguru.com.