Childhood is a stage that is distinct and abundantly filled with cognitive, emotional and physical changes. During this period in a human life, wonder, innocence and imagination are rampant. Many skills and lessons are learned that will assist with the course the child’s future will follow. This could be described as one of the most essential periods for the development of the individual they will eventually become. Some scholars have questioned whether each individual has a core self. Using some examples of the research of George Mead and John Hewitt- among others- it reveals that there are key aspects of the self that are developed by interactions within cultures and those inner communities.
For some children there is a period of time where an imaginary friend is an essential part of this course of self-development. It is difficult to say if the presence of an imaginary friend is something that comes from the core self or if it arises after a certain amount of socialization. I will examine the presence of imaginary friends in younger children lives, specifically those within the preschool years. My intention is to explore the function(s) these imaginary friends might accomplish in the development of the role, identity and self within the child.
One concept came from work done by George Herbert Mead, who is one of the leading theorists dealing with work of symbolic interactionism and the development of the self. His work established concepts of position, play, game, and other basic theories based on relationships between the self and societal impact. Mead’s stages of development seem to rest entirely upon
relations with others. Mead (1934) saw the self as something which ripens and results from associations with other individuals. One of his theories, the “double”, is signified by the establishment of the self as an entity. Some experiences can lead to the birth of a ‘double’ and can be represented by imaginary friends created by the child, and which allows them to control their experiences through play. He suggested that entities are formed by human activity. The goals of those activities have two important inferences; people live in a world of objects and societal conduct is oriented to goals and purposes. (Hewitt, 2003). When one recognizes his/her self as an object, involvement in societal interaction is possible. (Mead, 1934)
Another key factor in Mead’s theory is the development of the “generalized other” which-he believes- is vital in the maturity of the self. His concept of the “generalized other” is like a performance, a viewpoint that a person must creatively assume in order to take into account the formation of his/her own conduct which is created with principles, expectations and ideas influenced by the members of a particular societal group (Hewitt, 2003). The game and play stage must be passed through to reach full development. The play stage is identified as a period a child learns to take the identities of others and pretends about being the other. This developmental period, known as the play stage, allows the child to assume the role of another person and imagines him/herself to become that person, trying to assume and foresee what he/she imagines the other person might do.(Handel, 1988). During this stage, very important abilities are acquired; the development of role understanding, the capability to assume the status of others, the sharpened sense of one as an entity, and the ability to establish boundaries within that role…it is a phase a child will discover and expand insight of themselves and others. During this era, a child can learn and increase their understanding of their entire universe, including themselves.
While the play stage usually correlates to the time frame children have imaginary companions it is essential to have a complete understanding of the next stage, the game stage. The essential difference between the play and the game stage is that in the latter the child must comprehend the attitude of all the others involved in that game (Mead, 1934).
Advancement to the game stage is when children can incorporate and think about not only their
accomplishments but identify with the actions of others. This awareness comes from interactions with other people. After the game stage has passed the child has arrived, optimistically, at the point they are able to have formed a “generalized other” and can imagine themselves as another entity, whether it be a person or society.
The development of a “generalized other” and obtaining a sense of roles and boundaries is extremely important in becoming a successful individual within society. Children do not strictly follow the socialization that they are exposed to; asserting one’s autonomy is one way of establishing their independence and separation from others. It appears that imaginary friends can help to serve this role. The exact way that an imaginary friend is manifested is unknown-however, much research has been performed on this topic– but there is no argument that it is a creation belonging to and originated by the child alone.
Marjorie Taylor (1999), a psychologist who has studied children and their imaginary friends, does affirm that typically, an imaginary companion is an excellent example of a private act of fantasy controlled by the child him or herself.
The imaginary friend cannot be seen, interacted with or known without the aid of the child. It is a complete product and interaction that belongs solely to the child. There are also signs that even quite young children never completely loose touch with the fantasy status of their imaginary companions (Taylor, 1999).
A child who has an imaginary friend is a common phenomenon and does not automatically result from psychological problems or neglect. However, it should be noted that situations, such as psychological issues and/or neglect should not be overlooked when assessing a child with an imaginary friend.
Imaginary friends can serve various positive objectives in areas of the child’s development.
An imaginary friend could aid in creating feelings of importance, power, confidence, and could possibly lead to a greater acceptance of the self. Having an imaginary friend is one of the first independent acts separating the child from his/her mother or the child’s primary caretaker.
One of the endearing things about imaginary companions is that children can boss them around, direct their activities, and dictate their communication with others. There are a few case studies suggesting that if children’s sense of control over imaginary companions is diminished, the pretend friend sometimes disappears (Taylor, 1999). This interaction can assist a child to exercise his/her autonomy and develop more individual interaction skills. A second function
of imaginary friends is the ability to assist the child develop stronger social boundaries. Several scholars consider the importance of imaginary friends to be a catalyst for development. Commonly, imaginary friends offer an outlet which a child can use both reality and fantasy to learn right and wrong as well as what is acceptable in the context of different roles.
Machin wrote: fantasy allows children to contemplate moral and social issues at a
safe distance in the land of make believe (Machin & Davies, 2003). An imaginary
friend could possibly be an agent between fantasy and reality and an instrument with which the
child can explore their boundaries.
One indicator that imaginary friends might be representative of children becoming autonomous is that they usually do share the information with their parents. Research has shown that although the parent’s lack of knowledge regarding their child’s imaginary friend does not automatically come from the child’s refusal to reveal information about their friend.
An imaginary friend could possibly be a means a child uses to differentiate between fantasy and reality and an instrument with which the child can explore their boundaries. Children learn through the responses of others and that their behaviors have consequences (Handel, 1988). A child’s creation of an imaginary world also offers an alternate place where children can learn about the needs, feelings, and expectations of others. Discovering about roles and societal boundaries and expectations from imaginary friends could possibly tie into the transition between Meads’ play and game stages, bridging the gap between the play and game stage since the child not only interacts with the imaginary friend but also exhibits its reactions and thoughts.
It is complicated to identify if imaginary friends serve a positive function in a child’s development of sense of self, role acquisition, and identity based on this research. Research of
prior studies led to my theory that imaginary friends may serve with developing identity in children and assist the child learn societal boundaries. The growth of these characteristics in a child usually results in their ability to function well when interacting with others, allows a certain level of confidence in themselves, and provides a level of independence and/or willingness which will assist the child to implement their autonomy. Fundamentally, it appears that
imaginary friends offer those that have them a chance to find structure in a non traditional fashion.
According to many previous studies, approximately one third of all children between the ages of two and a half to four years of age have one or more imaginary friends and they tend to be more frequent among females.
Some in the academic community, as well as, many within the general public do regard the existence of imaginary friends as a wonderful manifestation on the part of the child and will engage in dialogue and recognition of the imaginary friends. However, at the same time as there are those that acknowledge imaginary friends, there are many that do not think that the existence of an imaginary friend presents a positive influence or role in the child’s development. It has been noted that the existence of an imaginary friend can actually cause tension within a family due to accommodations to involve this imaginary friend of their child’s in family activities.
Many parents are also cynical of the imaginary friend due to the possibility that the child may use the imaginary friend as a defense for the child to blame bad behavior upon. However, the suggestion that using the imaginary friend as an excuse is not certain.
The most widespread characterization of an imaginary friend is an invisible character, named and referred to in conversation with other persons or played with directly for a period of time, having an air of reality for the child but no apparent objective basis (Taylor, 199) A greater part of imaginary friends take human form, have names, and are believed to really “see, think, feel, know or act.” Imaginary friends have been depicted as having a high level of importance to the children that still have them and/or to the adults that had them during childhood and these imaginary friends continue to typically complete some sort of nurturing function. Since many of
these companions take on traits that are part of a child’s daily interaction, one could suggest that these friends are influenced by the social world of the child and also serve to help the child develop more ways of learning how to interact. In addition, connecting with a friend, whether imaginary or not; a child is establishing their concept as an entity. This is important for social interaction and learning about human conduct, expectations and societal boundaries.
Imaginary friends serve several levels of companionship functions that divert the child when out with a parent and/or caregiver, desiring play and social interactions, or situations when carrying out day-to-day routines. Some visits from the imaginary friend are very rare, while other times the appearance of the imaginary friend is a daily occurrence. Some children actually engage and play games with their friends while other children will just talk to the friend. One child (me) had their imaginary friend present during a move which correlates to the idea that an imaginary friend can be used as a means to adjust and learn about new situations. It appears these imaginary friends help those who had them- in some way- and performed some beneficial purpose.
Though the capacity to evaluate this question would be incredibly difficult, it would be valuable to study where imaginary friends come from and how and why they are created. More research needs to be done with children who currently have an imaginary friend and in a way that information could then be compared and contrasted between those children with imaginary friends and those children without imaginary friends. On the other hand, while it may be ideal to explore this issue further, there are drawbacks to studying children. When interviews are being performed with children, it is uncertain that what they are answering is actually what we are asking them.
Additionally, when dealing with imaginary friends and pretend play there is the added component of the child’s ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Unfortunately, there is no way to approach this issue which would be infallible.
Mead was accurate when he alluded to the fact that imaginary friends play a significant role in the development of the self. There are no blatantly bad indicators that imaginary friends are harmful. Nevertheless, there still exist many negative perceptions, both in research as well as within the general public. These perceptions link imaginary friends to problems later in life, ranging from unacceptable social behavior to forms of mental illness, including psychosis. It must be noted, there are cases where this link can be found, however, these cases include indicators of other problems, mental, emotional or physical.
This culture is has become overly dependant on exposure to the media. Imaginary friends are quite often used for entertainment purposes and are frequently misrepresented. Taylor contends that imaginary friends are framed in a negative light; however, not every aspect of media portrayal is negative. Overall the media-meaning movies, books, etc. – tends to over-exaggerate circumstances and highlight the negative aspects. Earlier work has shown the opposite and my findings from this research indicate that imaginary friends, more likely than not, could boost childhood development, confidence levels and establish stronger boundaries. Furthermore, while performing and compiling my research on this controversial topic, I have found that more information exists to support that the existence of an imaginary friend can assist a child deal with
a myriad of issues and situations that may not be successfully dealt with and/or overcome without the assistance of an imaginary friend.