Putting a leash on imagination?

By Scott Graves, Pilot staff writer March 13, 2010 05:00 am

If you’ve ever heard me call my 6-year-old daughter by the name “Pongo,” or whistle for her to come, pat her on the head and say “Good boy!” I want you to know I’m not crazy.

She is.

For the last four years, Alia has insisted on pretending to be or play with an imaginary canine friend named Pongo, the famous Disney dog from the movie “101 Dalmatians.”

She often runs around the house on all fours, barking like a dog. When I come home from work, I don’t know if I’ll receive a kiss or a lick on the cheek.

Our two real dogs don’t quite know what to make it. Me neither. My wife doesn’t seem to mind a bit.

I was beginning to wonder why my daughter, um, I mean Pongo, hadn’t outgrown this phase of her life when I read a story in the Bend Bulletin that quotes experts saying it’s good for children to have imaginary friends. Okay, I feel better.

According to the article,  University of Oregon professor of psychology Marjorie Taylor has been studying imaginary friends for about 20 years. She first started thinking about the topic when her own daughter developed such a friend. She wanted to explore research on the topic and found there really wasn’t much out there.

In fact, in the 1960s the prevailing thought was that imaginary friends were unhealthy. Experts believed the child might not be well-adjusted and could need psychological interventions. Imaginary friends were even seen as precursors to dissociative disorders or multiple personalities, the article states.

Today, research paints a much different picture, Taylor said. Rather than being seen as negative, imaginary friends are associated with some positive traits in kids, including advanced social and language skills. It also allows them to express emotions they might otherwise keep to themselves.

The research shows that kids tend to develop imaginary friends as young preschoolers, and many of these friends disappear around school age. But some children retain imaginary friends until 12 or older. As children get older, they are less likely to want to talk about their imaginary friends. At age 4 or 5, they don’t hide the friends, and parents tend to find it cute. By age 6 or 7, “it’s not as cute anymore,” said Taylor, and parents don’t encourage it as much.

One common myth regarding imaginary friends was that it was a sign children could not differentiate between reality and fantasy. Through her research, Taylor says this shouldn’t be a concern. Almost all of the children with imaginary friends understand they are not real. In a study of 83 children with imaginary friends, only one child seemed confused about this distinction.

“People think this is a red flag. It’s not,” said Taylor.

Parents have a wide range of reactions when it comes to imaginary friends, according to Taylor. Some parents accept and encourage them. Some parents worry because their child doesn’t have an imaginary friend. Other parents are concerned about created friends, and a few parents shame their children for it.

Me? I think it’s a hoot! It’s wildly entertaining, better than anything on TV. In fact, my daughter spends more time with her imaginary friends than watching TV, and she’s not shy about introducing them to her real friends, who happily play along.

So I don’t mind if Pongo hangs around for a little while longer – as long as he doesn’t get into the trash, dig too many holes or chew up my shoes.