It all started with a toy phone. Sage pressed the numbers, the phone made a ringing sound, and then a little girl’s voice started talking.
“Hi, what are you doing today? Great! Bye!”
Then more rings. And more talking.
“You are my best friend. Bye!”
And so on.
For a long time, Sage just listened. When she finally got quiet, he’d press more buttons and she’d start up again. He was a captive audience. And after awhile he started talking back. She’d ask him what he was doing today, and he’d start, in his stuttery, three-year old way to tell her. But before he could get two words out, she was long gone, onto declaring him her best friend. It ended up sounding like one of those conversations where you think the other person isn’t very good at talking on the phone.
Then it happened that when Sage was playing with other toys, he’d talk about someone called Astik. Astik jumps high or Astik likes trains. Who’s Astik? I’d ask. Someone at school? Finally I figured out that Astik was the name he’d given to the girl in the phone.
Now he plays with Astik all the time. Forget about the phone. Astik is his companion in the backyard while he’s digging in the sandbox or she’s racing him down the hallway in our house. Sometimes I hear him yelling at her, “Stop it Astik!”
In 2004, researchers from the University of Oregon and the University of Washington published a study showing that two-thirds of preschool children play with imaginary friends and one-third still have them in early elementary school.
Child psychologists of years past thought pretend friends were a sign of emotional immaturity or social pathology. This from an article in Slate.
For most of the 20th century, the experts generally kept their distance from the often peculiar figments of childish imaginations. Jean Piaget, the pioneer of cognitive psychology, relegated pretend friends to the immature stage of “magical thinking,” which children needed to outgrow to achieve cognitive competence.
The view in psychoanalytic circles was more darkly dismissive. “The notion has got around that imaginary companions are evidence of ‘insecurity,’ and ‘withdrawal,’ and a latent neurosis,” lamented Selma Fraiberg, an early booster of pretend friends, in The Wonder Years (1959). Certainly that was the opinion of America’s favorite Freudian popularizer, Dr. Spock. Parents whose children were “spending a large part of each day telling about imaginary friends or adventures” were gently urged to supply more “hugging and piggyback rides.”
Spock didn’t come right out and warn of incipient personality disorders, but the doctor who said that “a little imagination is a good thing” plainly did not feel the same way about a lot of imagination. If kids were still absorbed in such fantasies at 4, Dr. Spock advised that “a child psychiatrist, child psychologist, or other mental health counselor should be able to find out what they are lacking.”
But Marjorie Taylor, head of psychology at the University of Oregon and a co-author of the the 2004 study told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “The phenomenon of the imaginary friend is really misunderstood,” Taylor said. “People thought it was rare — it’s not. People thought it was a red flag — it’s not.”
Pretend friends offer companionship and entertainment, as well as a foil for practicing conflict resolution. And when kids lose interest, there’s no painful social rejection. Most of the time imaginary friends just fade away, although sometimes they meet a horrific demise, the researchers say, such as getting run over by a car. In Sage’s case, when he gets tired of Astik he can just stop taking her calls.