What Imaginary Companions Tell Us About Our Kids
Kids are famously imaginative—and their wild inventions often include make-believe companions. In our new video series, we meet a child who interacts with a herd of tiny, colorful cows; another whose companion is a can of tomato sauce; and many more.
There are, by definition, no limits to who, or what, a child’s imaginary companion can be. And that’s a good thing, according to psychologist Tracy Gleason. She says that imaginary companions help kids develop a “theory of mind” because, in engaging with their pretend friends, children learn how to consider the thoughts and feelings of someone else. And this make-believe realm, she says, can help parents better understand their kids.
Tracy Gleason is a professor of psychology and is Psychological Director of the Child Study Center at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Luke Groskin is Science Friday’s video producer. He’s on a mission to make you love spiders and other odd creatures.
IRA FLATOW: For the rest of the hour we’re going to enter the realm of the make believe of imaginary companions. Did you have one growing up? Still have it with you? A constant friend you could debate with, play with, find comfort in. It’s the topic of a new spotlight up at sciencefriday.com/imaginary. And our video producer Luke Raskin is here to tell us about it. Welcome, Luke.
LUKE RASKIN: Hi, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: What got you interested in imaginary companions?
LUKE RASKIN: Well, it’s not a topic that you’d think there’d be a lot of rich science behind, right? These whimsical creations of kids. But I have a 3 and 1/2 year old, and as he was getting a little bit older, I started noticing that his peers started having imaginary companions. And I remembered back to my youth, and I had a little stuffed bear that I talked to. And it got me thinking, you know, how many kids actually have them? And Why do they create them? And what does this mean? Is this healthy? There’s so many questions that came up that I thought it would be a really, really fun then and silly look at a fun science.
IRA FLATOW: I’d like to bring in another guest, one of the stars of Luke’s video series, Tracy Gleason, she’s professor of Psychology at the Wellesley College in Massachusetts and Psychological Director of the Child Study Center there. Welcome to Science Friday.
TRACY GLEASON: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s define what an imaginary companion is. Tracy, do stuffed animals count as an imaginary companion?
TRACY GLEASON: I would certainly say so. Typically we talk about two types of imaginary companions– invisible creations, something that the child creates pretty much out of nothing. And then also things like stuffed animals, dolls, blankets, really any object that the child animates and personifies. Those also count as a imaginary companions.
IRA FLATOW: And so what is it for the child? Why does the child want to have one of these companions?
TRACY GLEASON: Well, that’s the great question. Of course, when you ask it that way, it kind of suggests that there’s a reason. And in fact, there are probably as many reasons why children create imaginary companions as there are companions themselves. Sometimes it’s to have a person who’s around to play with any old time you want. Sometimes it’s helpful in figuring out how the world works, especially the social world. Sometimes it’s a place where you can experience emotions that are safe and that you can try to keep from being overwhelming. You know, it probably varies not only from child to child, but within the same child over time.
IRA FLATOW: And you as a psychologist, are you able to learn anything about these kids by their companions?
TRACY GLEASON: Oh, well, I think that we have looked a lot at comparisons between children who have imaginary companions and those who don’t. And really those two groups are much more similar than they are different. We’ve looked a lot of different things. Maybe they differ in intelligence or creativity or who knows what. And really, not a lot of differences pop up. To a certain extent, children who create imaginary companions might be a little bit more social than some of their peers. They tend to be pretty good at getting inside other people’s minds, understanding what other people are thinking. And they also are pretty social. They really like interacting with other people. They may be a little less shy than other children.
IRA FLATOW: Speaking of less shy, Luke–
You interviewed a young girl named Rosa who has an imaginary friend named Aggri–
LUKE RASKIN: Agridotis.
IRA FLATOW: Agridotis. Excuse me. Which your parents told you about, but you had to go ask her about it. And we have a clip of that exchange.
LUKE RASKIN: Do you have a friend that you imagine?
ROSA: Yeah! He lives in the floor with the ants! [LAUGHS]
LUKE RASKIN: Now, is Agridotis, is he a friend?
LUKE RASKIN: He’s a friend of yours.
ROSA: And he lives in the floor.
LUKE RASKIN: Oh, do you–
ROSA: I ripped.
LUKE RASKIN: Do you play games with Agridotis?
LUKE RASKIN: I was told that Agridotis is somebody that you are going to marry.
ROSA: Yes! And– and– and– and– his name’s Fruit.
IRA FLATOW: His name is Fruit?
LUKE RASKIN: Oh, yeah. I’ve gone through a lot of tough interviews in my time. But this one was a real challenge, getting this little girl to stop playing the fruit game in and responding to every single question with fruit. Which is I guess a testament to the kind of developmental psychologists who interview hundreds of these kids and have to try to figure out a way to get inside their heads.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow–
TRACY GLEASON: Welcome to my world.
IRA FLATOW: Yes. We’ll get more into it, but let me just remind everybody, this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Luke Raskin and Tracy Gleason. Tracy do these kids know that the companions are imaginary?
TRACY GLEASON: Absolutely. That is one thing that we are very clear about. It’s extremely rare, that I myself have never come across a child who was unclear on the fact that these companions are imagined. And, in fact, in the middle of the interview– we often have lots of questions we ask about what the companion does and where they live and what the child likes about them and doesn’t like about them. So we’ll go through these questions, and maybe we’re halfway through or so, and the child will say, you know, it’s not real. Because they get a little worried that maybe you’re kind of too into it. And maybe you’re a little bit confused. And so they often want to straighten you out about that.
IRA FLATOW: And you’ve found that to be true from your interviews in your video.
LUKE RASKIN: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Even when the kids claim that “I’m not pretending. It’s real. It’s only very momentarily. Moments later, just a couple minutes later, they’ll tell you, they’re pretend. They’re just trying to kind of– they want you to get into the spirit of it. They want you to experience the kind of bubble that they’ve put themselves in with their imaginary friends.
IRA FLATOW: And you say you have a three part series?
LUKE RASKIN: It’s three parts. The first week we look at the overview of what kids have them, why they have them. The second one we look at this question of, do they think they’re real. And then the third one we look at the social aspects. And Dr. Gleason actually works on that particularly. What can an imaginary companion tell you about a kid’s social life? What kind of insights can you glean from that?
IRA FLATOW: And speaking of insights? Tracy Gleason, do you have any insight, a message for parents like Luke here who’s child has an imaginary companion?
TRACY GLEASON: Well, I think the most important message is just to have fun with it. I think parents run into trouble if they try to control it. Remember that children are the experts on these imaginary companions. And so you kind of have to defer to them. But at the same time, parents can put limits on when these companions can appear and what they can do and not do.
IRA FLATOW: I have to get this quick call in from Doug in Highland Park, Chicago. Hi, Doug, quickly.
DOUG: Yes, hello. How are you?
IRA FLATOW: Yes.
DOUG: I guess, sort of an added element to it. We have a son who actually has constructed a whole imaginary planet, and he’s six years old. And I think it stems from his love of astronomy. And so he fueled it with his imagination. So I just wanted to see what your take is on that? But it–
IRA FLATOW: Does it have a name? Does the planet have a name?
DOUG: Ah, it does. I can’t recall. I think the name changes from day to day.
IRA FLATOW: All right. Let me get a reaction. Thanks for the call. What do you think, Tracy?
TRACY GLEASON: Actually, we have a name for that. Those are called paracosms. There are lots of children– Margery Taylor has done some great research with her students on the prevalence of these imaginary worlds. About 17% of kids create them. And they can be of any type. I mean, anything the child can imagine. So paracosms are actually another phenomenon that we count among all these fantasy things that children do.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. And if you want to see the videos, they’re up there on the website?
TRACY GLEASON: That’s right. Go to sciencefriday.com/imaginary and watch them. Read the articles. You’ll find yourself kind of swept up into these kids’ worlds, and hopefully learning a little bit about the science and research behind them.
IRA FLATOW: And they’re very, very entertaining and very educational. Well done, and congratulations to you, Luke.
LUKE RASKIN: Thanks.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you also, Tracy Gleason, for taking the time to be with us today.
TRACY GLEASON: It was entirely my pleasure. Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Tracy Gleason, Professor of Psychology at Wellesley in Massachusetts and Psychological Director of the Child Study Center there.