For a long time, kids' imaginary friends were a cause for concern: Dr Spock recommended taking kids to "a child psychiatrist, child psychologist or other mental-health counsellor" to figure out what kids with imaginary friends were "lacking;" while Jean Piaget saw imaginary friends as a sign of failure, not of an active imagination, because "The child has no imagination, and what we ascribe to him as such is no more than a lack of coherence."
(As an aside: Piaget could be a real asshole sometimes)
In the 1990s, this orthodoxy was challenged by a new generation of child-development specialists, who began looking into the lives of people who'd had imaginary friends as kids, and reported that having an imaginary pal in childhood was correlated with both childhood and adult social and verbal facility and creativity.
A childhood imaginary friend correlates with a high degree of adult "absorbtion" — the ability to lose yourself in a book or movie — and while most imaginary friends disappear by nine or ten, some adults (including Agatha Christie) keep their imaginary friends with them for their whole lives.
My kid has an amazing imaginary friend whose accomplishments and physical attributes are always being stretched and valorized to us. The Globe and Mail quotes Marjorie Taylor, "the world's foremost expert on imaginary friends," saying that parents do well to encourage their kids' imaginary friends, but to keep boundaries: "Sometimes parents get so involved that they're almost taking over the imaginary friend."
And there have been case studies in which parents' over-involvement proved disastrous.
In one, a parent used a remote control to close the family's garage door, then told the child that the imaginary friend had done it. That didn't compute with the confused child. The imaginary friend disappeared.
Another example: When Debbie Nolan was about to enter school, her grandparents decided that it was time for her imaginary friend, a boy named Jimmy, to disappear.
"I had a winter coat. It was this blue winter coat we were getting rid of because it didn't fit me any more. My grandfather said, 'We're going to put Jimmy in the coat and then we're going to give the coat away,'" Nolan says.
She pleaded, to no avail.
"I was thinking, 'Just because you can't see him doesn't mean he's not real,'" she recalls.
They took the coat away. Jimmy never came back. "I was devastated," Nolan says.
Hello, my (imaginary) friend [Dave McGinn/The Globe and Mail]