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Study: Kids with pretend companions have stronger narrative skills

For someone like me, who had a crew of imaginary playmates as a young child (including an owl who perched on my right shoulder and helped me steer clear of trouble whenever I sailed the seas in my cardboard box), the results of a recent study on children with imaginary companions was, well, kind of cool.

The study, published in the current issue of the journal Child Development, reports that children with at least one imaginary friend tend to have superior narrative skills. They don’t necessarily have a larger vocabulary than kids without imaginary playmates, but when they tell stories — both made-up ones and real ones about their own lives — they use richer language, the study found.

"These findings add to the growing body of evidence that imaginary companion play is associated positively with children’s linguistic and social-cognitive development," wrote the study’s authors.

What a turnaround. A generation or two ago parents were made to worry about a child with imaginary companions. But today, thank goodness, we know that there is nothing psychologically "wrong" with children who make up such delightful companions as these:

• "Rose," an invisible, 9-year-old female squirrel with brown fur and hazel eyes, who lives in an imaginary house in a tree in her child’s yard.
• "Skateboard Guy," an invisible 11-year-old boy who lives in his child’s pocket, has a fancy skateboard and can do lots of tricks with it. "Skateboard Guy" also likes to see how fast his child can run.

Those examples come from a 2004 study by Stephanie Carlson, a University of Minnesota psychologist who is considered one of the leading experts on the topic. Her research, she told me in an interview last week, has produced lots of reassuring news for parents.

A rite of passage
To begin with, she says, having an imaginary companion is "a typical rite of passage for many preschool-age children." Depending on how the term imaginary companion is defined, as many as one-half of all children may have one at some point.

First-born children are more likely to have imaginary companions, but not just because they don’t have a sibling to play with. "Parents put more verbal energy in promoting language and vocabulary in their first born," says Carlson, and verbal skills are associated with more imaginative play.

Girls are more likely than boys to have an invisible playmate. But boys are more likely to impersonate a character — pretend they’re a monster or a spaceman — than girls.

And here’s the sigh-of-relief news for parents: Children with imaginary companions have been found to have just as many — or even more — friendships and the same level of peer acceptance as kids without such companions.

From playmate to muse?
Carlson’s research has also found that children do not necessarily give up their pretend playmates once they leave their preschool years. "Earlier researchers thought this type of play fizzles out by kindergarten, but it seems instead to follow kids through school age," she says.

In fact, the invisible playmate may "change shape, like a shape shifter," she adds, and continue into adolescence and, gulp, even into adulthood.

Not to worry. "For exceptionally creative people, it gets expressed in the form of the creative arts," Carlson says.

Fiction writers, she points out, often talk about their characters acting independently — just as young children do about their imaginary companions. Here’s Stephen King: "I want to put a group of characters ... in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free." Or, if you prefer, E.M. Forster:

The characters arrive when evoked, but full of the spirit of mutiny. ... [T]hey try to live their own lives and are consequently often engaged in treason against the main scheme of the book. They “run away,” they “get out of hand” ... and if they are kept too sternly in check, they revenge themselves by dying.

Just remember whose friend it is
So, parents, if your child should one day announce that he or she wants the table set for "Rose" or "Skateboard Guy" (or "Shoulder Owl"), don’t panic.

"Let it be, and offer mild encouragement without interfering," suggests Carlson. "And keep in mind that it’s their imaginary friend, not yours."

What? Parents actually get attached to their child’s imaginary friend? Yes, says Carlson. "Some parents are even sadder than their kids when the imaginary friend dies," she says.

Sounds like another study may need to be done.

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