"It wasn't me. Hobbes did it." How often has Calvin tried to use that gambit to get out of trouble (which he is almost always in the middle of)? In the popular comic strip created by Bill Waterson, Hobbes has been portrayed as Calvin's stuffed tiger. But to Calvin, he's very much alive and is his best friend.
"Everything you can imagine is real", said Pablo Picasso and maybe that explains his surreal artworks. It certainly holds true for most children; and round 3 to 4 years of age, it's quite common for them to have one or more imaginary friends. This could be another child or an animal, even a fantasy figure. Many a times, it's the only child or the oldest child who has an imaginary friend and it isn't usually a cause of concern. On the contrary, such children are often quite imaginative and creative. Psychology professor at the University of Oregon, Marjorie Taylor is an authority on this subject and has debunked several myths about a child's propensity to imagine friends in her book Imaginary Companions And The Children Who Create Them. "Children with imaginary friends tend to be less shy and are also able to see things from another person's perspective", says Taylor. Children create imaginary friends for a variety of reasons-for companionship, pretend play, to practise getting along with others, etc. And most of the children studied by Taylor were aware that their friends were not real.
Signs of Trouble?
Having an imaginary friend is a part of growing up. Most children outgrow them by the age of 4, though some 'friends' may hang on for a few years longer. If your child has an imaginary friend, ask questions to find out more about the friend. Often you will learn more about your child's current interests (and fears). "My daughter's imaginary friend was afraid of the dark", says Sheetal (last name withheld on request), a banking professional. "I figured out that it was in fact my daughter who feared the dark, and I could help her overcome it through her imaginary friend", she says. If your child uses her imaginary friend to get out of trouble or to avoid doing something she doesn't like, be firm but don't challenge the existence of her 'friend'. Play along but don't make a big deal about the imaginary friend, and don't get too involved in her play-acting. Channel Calvin's mum, who indulged Calvin's friendship with Hobbes, but let him know the rules of the house, and most importantly, who's the boss! More often than not, your child will naturally wean away from the imaginary buddy. You can also help the process along by encouraging them to spend more time with real friends and get them involved in sports or other hobbies.
Having an imaginary friend is just a phase; so let your child enjoy the company. They will soon grow out of it.