"WHERE'S Bonnie's clay?" Tara called out insistently, as I put out a large ball of clay for each child to work with. "And where is her chair? You know Bonnie needs to have her own chair," the 4-year-old reminded me. I continued to distribute tongue depressors to use with the clay, but Tara's big green eyes caught me, pleading that I include her "imaginary friend," Bonnie, in yet another activity.
For months, no matter what Tara has been doing, her make-believe companion has been by her side. Bonnie is given crackers and juice at snack time, just like everyone else. Tara feeds her invisible friend, chattering to the empty chair at the table. In addition, Bonnie's is the vacant cot beside Tara's at rest time. Sometimes Tara scolds Bonnie for doing (imaginary) naughty things, such as knocking over Antoine's block tower or grabbing Emma's favorite doll. Last week, Bonnie was chastised for pushing over someone's snowperson on the playground. Oddly enough, Tara never does such things. She's a gentle child and very well liked. She's also very creative-- everyone admires the stories she tells at group time. Still, I'm worried about Tara. If she keeps up her "friendship" with Bonnie, won't she have trouble separating fact from fiction? I've noticed, though, that Tara's mother isn't at all concerned. As a matter of fact, she goes along with it, even sending money for Bonnie's milk along with Tara's. Is that why Tara shows no sign of giving up her imaginary companion?
The Parents Story
TARA is a wonderfully imaginative child. Since I am in the arts, I am delighted that she is so creative. Although she is still a little girl, we really think alike. There's an added joy to parenting a child like Tara. We play together whimsically. Sometimes I start a story and Tara finishes it. At other times, we might draw together. So when Tara brought Bonnie, her imaginary friend, into our lives, I was amused. I think it's fine for Tara to have an imaginary friend and welcomed Bonnie. We put a sleeping bag on the floor for her near Tara's bed, and Bonnie goes wherever we go as a family. She's good company for Tara when she is with a caregiver and I have to be away at the theater. It's hard to understand why the teacher is so concerned. Doesn't she know how wonderful it is to have an inventive child?
Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
It is not unusual for a preschool-age child to have an imaginary friend. This companion, who travels about with the family and follows the child to school, usually vanishes in less than a year. While repeated allusions to a make-believe person in the classroom and household can be disconcerting to teachers or parents, there is rarely a serious cause for concern. Preschoolers are at the height of their imaginative capacities, and Tara has been praised and encouraged for hers at home. What's more, her mother recognizes that having Bonnie is comforting to Tara in her absence. Unless there are reasons to believe that Tara's real life is very unsatisfying or lonely, Bonnie can be accepted as a temporary diversion, though treating Bonnie as an honored member of the family does not allow Tara's preoccupation to fade easily.
What the Teacher Can Do
The teacher ought to be reassured to learn that Tara is not losing her touch with reality. If she accepts the imaginary friend, while encouraging Tara's interest in real activities, the interest in Bonnie is likely to pass by the end of the school year.
Then, too, Tara may be expressing unacceptable aggressive feelings through Bonnie. When Tara becomes less frightened of being bad, she will not have as much need for Bonnie in school. It would be best to avoid admonishing Tara for minor misbehavior so that she doesn't feel the need to be perfect.
What the Parent Can Do
Tara and her mother have a wonderful time together. Tara is happy to please her and have her talents appreciated. Still, it would not be best for Tara if the make-believe world they share became more fascinating than the real world. The parent can help Tara to have a more balanced life by also applauding real experiences. Some of the time, Tara's mom should try to arrange play dates when she is away working. She can invite friends home and plan family outings. There is no danger that offering these ordinary opportunities would squelch Tara's delightful creativity.