Marjorie Taylor is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and an expert on imaginary friends. She read my August 27 post at the blog Daddy Dialectic on my son’s imaginary characters, in which I describe how he adopts roles that range from Frank Lloyd Wright to Spider-Man to the Wicked Witch of the West.
“Mostly what your son is doing is not having an imaginary friend,” she told me in an interview. “It’s having a pretend identity. There’s usually a gender difference there. Boys and girls are similar in that they create imaginary characters, but there is a gender difference in what they tend to do with those characters. So, the little boys tend to put on superhero capes and run around. They take on the characteristics of the character and act it out. Whereas little girls, at least during the preschool period, are more likely to invent this other person that they’re interacting with. By the time they get to be about seven or eight, though, little boys are just as likely as little girls to have an imaginary friend rather than a pretend identity.”
Taylor’s research into imagination and pretend play is fascinating–and I found that it illuminated quite a lot about my son’s behavior and propensities. Liko–who has imaginary friends as well as pretend identities–is a very sociable, verbal, empathic little boy who is prone to flights of elaborate fantasy. (Incidentally, in the photo above, Liko is pretending to be a fireman in a real-life fire engine.) In her research, Taylor has found a strong correlation between those qualities and the prevalence of imaginary companions.
“Children who have imaginary friends are better able to take the perspective of another person,” she said. “We’ve been able to show that in our work.” But she cautions us against believing that one causes the other: researchers still don’t know if empathic instincts cause kids to make up imaginary friends or if imaginary friends help kids to learn to take another person’s perspective.
Whatever triggers these qualities, it appears early in life. “Children who go on to develop imaginary friends really show an interest in fantasy from a very early age,” she told me. “So even before the first year, they tend to be the kids who really like puppets and stuffed animals, rather than building blocks or things that are more reality-oriented. Those are the kids who go on at [a later age] to have imaginary friends.”
One of the interesting implications of the gender difference Taylor found is that little boys appear to be more wrapped up in projecting themselves into roles of power, while girls from early on are developing characters outside themselves who demand attention and empathy. This plays to certain gender stereotypes, but her research also implies that boys and girls alike can develop empathy and caregiving behavior by developing their imaginations.
Reprinted with the permission of the Greater Good Science Center.
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