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The Fascinating World of Children’s Imaginary Friends

One author went all over the world to interview kids about their imaginary friends. He came away with a new appreciation for the child mind — and a lot of stories.

When Dr. J. Bradley Wigger’s daughter Cora was three-years-old, she had a friend named Crystal. Crystal was a partner in crime, a confidant. She would join Cora and her father for afternoon snacks and trips to the mall. But mostly, Crystal was a playmate, a companion, someone who got herself into all sorts of fantastical situations. She also happened to be imaginary. But that didn’t make her any less real.

A Presbyterian Minister, social worker, author, and educator who focuses on religious, childhood, and family education, Dr. Wigger was always fascinated with the idea of kid’s imaginary friends. Why, he wondered, do children have invisible friends? What is happening in the psyches of children who will them into existence? What do they say about children’s imaginations in general?

Twenty years after his encounters with Crystal began, Dr. Wigger finally dove into the subject of imaginary friends. He first received a grant to interview children about their various invisible creations in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.  After presenting his findings to a conference, Dr. Wigger secured additional funding to interview groups of children about their imaginary friends in Kenya, Nepal, Malawi, and the Dominican Republic. He discovered scores of children with various imaginary friends, including humans, human-like creatures, and animals. He also got a new view of the young child’s mind.

Dr. Wigger’s book, Invisible Companions: Encounters with Imaginary Friends, Gods, Ancestors, and Angels is a fascinating account of his inspiration, travels, and findings. Imaginary friends, he found, are not only common across the world but they speak to the complexities of the child’s mind and its capacity to create and maintain robust social connections. “Kids’ minds and their imaginations are much more sophisticated than we typically give them credit for,” he tells Fatherly.

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Fatherly spoke to Dr. Wigger about invisible friends, the various characters he discovered in his travels, and why parents should embrace, if not literally, their kid’s imaginary friends.

What made you interested in studying imaginary friends?

Well, I’ve always been fascinated by the way the mind works, which is one reason I went into education. After I got my PhD, I was a stay at home dad for a number of years. And, for a time, my daughter had an imaginary friend named Crystal. It was clear that my daughter wasn’t compensating from a lack of friends or any other stereotypes you might have about it. It wasn’t so different than playing with dolls, except there was nothing to see. She was making it up out of thin air. And that also ran a little counter to a lot of  [early childhood development theory about] how concrete little kids are, that they need the concreteness to understand things. Here you had kids just making something up that was completely invisible and establishing a relationship with that invisible character. So, it was both personally intriguing because it was my daughter and then it was also professionally intriguing. 

You started talking to children about their imaginary friends in Louisville, Kentucky and then traveled abroad to Nepal, Malawi, Kenya, and the Dominican Republic to interview more children. What sort of diversity of imaginary friends did you find?

I would say probably 90 percent of children’s imaginary friends were human or human-ish. And maybe another 8-9 percent were animal. And I’d say animals were even more common in the Louisville sample than in other countries.

There were — and this was easier to get at in this country — several shape-shifters, too. One day, a child’s imaginary friend might be a bunny rabbit and the next they’d be a tiger and another day they’d be a human. But it was still “Lucy.”

So, there’s a core essence to the character, but the shape can change, the species can change. I had a couple where the gender changed as well: sometimes a child’s imaginary friend was a boy named Jeff and other times it was a girl named Jeffette.

Did you have any favorites?

I had a couple very early on that stuck with me. This one little boy in Louisville had Quack Quack, who was a four-year-old duck, and one of five imaginary friends. The boy’s favorite was Stella, a 100-year-old Robin. I’d interviewed the father in this case. He said this little boy, who was only four, had had imaginary friends since he was two-and-a-half or three. The boy’s imaginary friends were originally human and they became animals later.

That’s really interesting.

One of my favorite stories was from the very first interview I did. There was this little girl in Louisville who was about a month shy of three years old. So, a very little kid. The mother had told me on the phone before we did the interview that she had had two imaginary friends, Coda and Leah, and that Coda had died. But when we actually met for the interview, Coda was back again. So, she had two again. Life and death were pretty fluid categories for her.

She was the first child I interviewed, so I was still feeling my way through all of this. I asked her “Where are Leah and Coda now?” And she looked across the room — we were in a pre-school but no other kids were around — and she pointed and said “Oh, Leah is right over there.” And I said “Oh, that’s great. Where’s Coda?” And she got up, looked around, and went to the doorway. There was a hallway there, she looked up and down the hallway. She started waving her arm to summon him to come on. Then she squatted down, started talking to him, got halfway back to us, squatted down, talked to him some more and she came back to the table where we were sitting and said, “Now Coda’s here, too.”

That’s quite the scene. And…also a tiny bit unsettling? 

Well, what was also funny was that I had been given her stickers throughout the cognitive test part of the interview and I said to her “Well maybe Leah and Coda would like a sticker too.” She just looked up at me and said “They’re pretend.” Like, You idiot, how are you going to put a sticker on an imaginary friend? [laughs]

That was my first interview. So, the whole notion of oh children can’t differentiate fantasy sort of started to crumble immediately. And that proved to be the case again and again.

There’s some research about imaginary friends that puts a negative spin on them. That they’re a way to cope with loneliness or some sort of regression into fantasy. What do you think?

I think imaginary friends are actually part of the social life. Kids are playing with relationships, in a sense, and learning about taking another point of view. In a way, I think kids are playing with theory of mind, they’re playing with these perspectives.

So, it’s deeply social and the opposite certain childhood theories, which said they were a way for kids to get out of their natural egocentrism and fantasy worlds and into the reality of a social world. But I think the imagination is a way of being social. Imaginary friends show this.

There were several children who shared their imaginary friends, often with a sibling. One sibling might have the friend and the other started adopting the friend too. In another case, two brothers originated the friend together on a camping trip. So, there’s something, again, deeply social to imaginary friends. You really have to cooperate when you co-play with a figure that nobody can really see. It’s almost like an improv troupe where they really have to pay attention and play off one another, otherwise they’d kill it.

How did cultural backgrounds factor into what you found?

In terms of prevalence, about a quarter of the kids we spoke to in Malawi said that they had an invisible friend. And about 21 percent in Kenya. I had really high expectations about Nepal because that’s just such an amazing culture and there’s so much representation of an invisible world of gods and goddesses that you can’t walk down the street without bumping into three or four temples. But I only found five out of 100 kids I interviewed had invisible friends.

And then I went to the Dominican Republic and more than one-third of kids I spoke to there had them. There, however, I asked, Had you ever had one? which I didn’t do everywhere. And when I did that it rose up to about 50 percent as well. So this does speak to the probability that there are some cultural differences that cause parents to either support, discourage, or tolerate imaginary friends.

In Kenya or Malawi, kids had a lot more time with just their peers. So I’m thinking that all that was just tolerated as play. I think that in Nepal, having an imaginary friend may have been actively discouraged. Many of the adults I spoke with there were emphasizing realism with kids in the culture. And in the DR, there was more enthusiasm with the kids, and even the adults, about their invisible companions.

These are only theories, however.

What have all of your investigations into imaginary friends helped you realize about the child mind?

Well, my daughter Cora read a draft of my book because she was featured in it. When she finished, she said “Man, kids are cool.” Kids are cool. They really are.

The more precise version of this is that there’s so much more sophistication going on in young minds than they’ve typically gotten credit for. I think they need to be taken more seriously, even if playfully, and there needs to be a respect for all that’s going on in there.

What advice would you give parents of children who have imaginary friends?

Well most kids didn’t like it if a parent said, “That’s just pretend.” They wouldn’t like that because they felt that it was blowing off the relationship.

It’s an invalidation.

Yes. I always compare it to an adult watching a movie or reading a novel and their favorite character in the story dies. If they cry about this and someone says, “It’s just a movie,” or “It’s just a story,” that invalidates whatever that interaction is. That’s a form of imaginative play for adults, I think.

Would you encourage parents to foster these relationships?

I would encourage parents to play along and enjoy and see what happens and treat it as though the kids are playing with characters from books they’ve given them. And if they’re thinking about it that way, it can be fun for the parents as well. That’s one of the great things about going around and interviewing kids. I’m inspired and changed by them. I’ve developed these little relationships with them and it does something to me that I would want to happen to other parents or grandparents. These relationships are very special.