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What’s a parent to do when little Jimmy insists that the invisible playmate he is talking to and playing with is real?

My advice: Don’t worry at all about this form of preschool creativity. Jimmy knows his friend isn’t real but enjoys pretending.

Imaginary companions arise out of the minds of bright young children who are still sorting out fantasy from reality. The preschool child who wants something to be true may think wishing makes it so. If I pretend hard enough it will become real.

Fantasy is important to all of us, and especially to preschoolers. Fantasy is a most important component of play, which in turn is a most important component of learning about the world and relationships.

Somewhere between one-third and half of all preschool children have imaginary friends. These are not always human, some are animals. What often startles parents is the way these imaginary playmates suddenly become part of their child’s world. One day out of the blue the child says, “Superboy is right there! Can’t you see him, Mommy?” Alas, you can’t!

Imaginary playmates usually “appear” when the child is three or four and “disappear” by kindergarten when the child outgrows the need for them. There does not seem to be any precipitating factor or reason for their appearance.

Often children take the name of the imaginary friend from something going on in the child’s world at the time. During the Watergate business one child I know called his imaginary friend Nixon. My mother tells me that my imaginary friend had the same name as a woman murderer in the news at the time.

Preschoolers who invent imaginary friends are not–as some once thought–lonely, withdrawn, unable to make real friends, or inadequately parented. As a matter of fact, studies have shown such children are well-adjusted, creative, and make friends easily. They are also more verbal and cooperative and less likely to be bored. There is some evidence that children with imaginary playmates may be more creative in later life.

These playmates are good friends to the child–non-threatening, warm, friendly, and always there for the child.

Some imaginary friends serve as convenient scapegoats for the child. “Howard spilled the popcorn!” Sometimes a child will use the imaginary friend to help in mastering the difference between right and wrong. “Sally tore up the paper. She’s naughty!”

Many imaginary friends are protective and shoo monsters away. Others help the child deal with anger toward the parents by saying hostile things the child would not dare say. “Howard says you’re a mean Daddy!”

Parents often ask how they should deal with an imaginary friend who isn’t there. First of all, enjoy! It’s fun to observe your child’s imagination in action.

The friend belongs to your child, so don’t talk to it directly, just through your child. Don’t mention the friend until your child does. Don’t make fun of your child or make the child feel that there is something wrong with having an imaginary friend.

Be especially careful not to talk about these cute, funny things your child says in the child’s hearing. The last thing we want children to feel is embarrassment about something they think or say.

There’s nothing wrong with getting into the spirit of things as long as you make it clear that it is the child’s fantasy. If your child asks for a cookie for the imaginary friend divide one in half and say, “You give it to Mercury”. If the child says that Mercury dumped out the popcorn say, “Tell Mercury it has to be cleaned up. You help him!” Don’t let the imaginary friend get away with murder! If the friend calls you an old pooh-pooh say, “Tell Mercury that name-calling hurts!”

Don’t think that your child is lying when he or she blames the imaginary companion for some transgression. Don’t worry that your child will never develop a sense of responsibility or a conscience. When a 3-year-old says the imaginary friend did it, the child is well on the way to developing a conscience. Three-year-olds blame another precisely because they have learned that the behavior is wrong, which is what you want your child to learn. Blaming the imaginary friend gives children a chance to preserve their self-image while learning what acceptable behavior is.