Transcript

19 Jun 2009

Imaginary Friends with Evan Kidd

Dr Evan KiddDr Evan Kidd
e.kidd@latrobe.edu.au

Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast. I’ll be your host, Matt Smith, and I’m here with Dr Evan Kidd. Evan, thanks for joining me today.

Dr Evan Kidd:

Thank you.

Matt Smith:

How would you be?

Dr Evan Kidd:

I’m good, thanks. How are you?

Matt Smith:

Yeah, not too bad. So you’ve been studying children with imaginary friends. You work in the School of Psychological Science.

Dr Evan Kidd:

Yeah, that’s right.

Matt Smith:

Why have you been studying kids with imaginary friends?

Dr Evan Kidd:

Kids with imaginary friends, are by definition, kids who engage in lots of what we call symbolic play or pretend play. And psychologists have known for quite some time that kids who engage in lots of pretend play see the benefits in things like their language development and other types of development that is kind of what you can see important for success in things like school. So, given my interest in pretend play, I thought, “Well, it’s a logical next step work with these kids who engage in lots of it which are kids with imaginary companions.

Matt Smith:

But what about pretend play interests you?

Dr Evan Kidd:

Well, pretend play is interesting because common sense tells us that it’s just something that kids do. Kids pretend. They have imaginations and kids play. But, like I said, what lots of people have found, is that it’s actually really important part of development and essential part of development and is linked to things like children’s linguistic development.

Matt Smith:

So if you found that children with imaginary friends have better developed language skills or…

Dr Evan Kidd:

Yeah, we found something a little bit more subtler than that. So what we found is that kids who have imaginary companions are really good in conversation with adults. So what they do, what they’re able to do, is understand the information that when they’re talking to an adult, that the adult needs to know. And they provide that information in an efficient manner.

Matt Smith:

Why do children come up with imaginary friends? What prompts them to develop these sorts of things?

Dr Evan Kidd:

Well, these kids are just generally very creative in the beginning. Kids who have imaginary companions or imaginary friends tend to be only children or firstborn children. It’s not solely a phenomenon that’s limited to only children or firstborn children but if you are an only child or firstborn, you’re more likely to develop one.

And what we think is that because these kids are creative and because they’ve got more opportunities for what you’d call lone play and, for instance, because they’ve got no brothers and sisters to play with, they’ve got more opportunities to be by themselves. And so, in the absence of being able to play with, for instance, brothers and sisters, they invent people to play with.

Matt Smith:

Is it a lack of stimulus in their environment?

Dr Evan Kidd:

I wouldn’t say that. Kids just have a natural tendency or a natural drive to play anyway and they want to keep themselves interested in things. So it’s not as though they don’t have enough toys, I guess, or something like that. It’s just this is something that they really enjoy doing so why not do it.

Matt Smith:

At what point does a child, say, grow out of an imaginary friend? Is there a point where they don’t need them anymore?

Dr Evan Kidd:

Yeah, they tend to hit their height of popularity at about four or five. Kids can have them as early as two. That’s what we think; that about four or five, they’re really popular or most children will have them at that point if they’re going to have them. And then what happens is kids hit primary school and they develop a larger peer group so there is less opportunity to engage in this kind of lone play where they would play with their imaginary companion.

But what I found since talking to a lot of people after this story gained a bit of popularity is that lots of kids aged eight or nine tend to have them still. So it could be that we’re just not targeting that age group and that kids at this age do tend to have them and they still play with them.

Matt Smith:

Did you have an imaginary friend when you were younger?

Dr Evan Kidd:

No, I didn’t. As I said, they only happen with the firstborn or only children. I was second-born in a large, sort of, family.

Matt Smith:

So no Pete’s Dragon for you.

Dr Evan Kidd:

No, no. Unfortunately not.

Matt Smith:

You said that they tend to be able to communicate better with adults to get their thoughts across. How is does extending to, say, the school development?

Dr Evan Kidd:

Yeah, well, the thing is, I guess, I said that they interact better with adults because that’s what we tested them in that kind of situation. If we could, it would be nice to do the study again and test them with peers because I would imagine that they would perform better than kids without imaginary companions, given the same situation, by talking to a peer.

If we take the research into the classroom, I think that that actual task that we tested them on, and this kind of a task where the kids had to explain something to an adult in an unambiguous manner and an efficient manner, then I guess this is the kind of problem that happens in the classroom all the time. What kids have to do in the classroom is understand how language can be ambiguous, for instance, and they have to understand instructions and also potentially express themselves to a teacher if they don’t understand some things.

Matt Smith:

There is kind of two schools of thought that you can go down with a child who has an imaginary friend. One is that kids will be kids. Just let them have their fun. And the other is that maybe it’s a sign of a developmental drawback of some sort or the child is having trouble adjusting to things so they’re relying on an imaginary friend. Which sort of train of thought do you tend to follow on that?

Dr Evan Kidd:

That’s a really complex question and I guess it comes back to the fact that the kids invent imaginary companions for a whole myriad of reasons. So, I would say that a majority of kids who invent imaginary companions are just doing so because, like I said, they enjoy playing, they’re creative, and that’s what they do. But there are cases in the literature where kids do invent them for some difficult transitional periods.

So, for instance, parents who had gone through a divorce or they could be moving. And when signs of stress occur, what children tend to do is try and play out these types of their worries and fears through pretend play. And this is one of the functions of pretend play. So it could be that an imaginary companion might appear during these times. But this does not mean it’s necessarily a bad thing. It could just mean that the kids are trying to explore the emotions and what’s going on around them.

Matt Smith:

So how did you go about your testing? You had a sample area of children, a sample number of children. Did you talk to the imaginary friends through the children at all?

Dr Evan Kidd:

No. One of the nice things about doing this research is that you get to hear all the great stories about the kid’s imaginary friends. But kids don’t often bring them in to the labs so you kind of go and say that the imaginary friend or friends, as it might be, will come in to the lab so you have to just take it in authority that they’ve got them. They might tell you about them but sometimes they’re very private things for the kids. They’re their own friend and it’s their own fantasy and they’re not really interested in sharing it with other people. But unfortunately, you don’t often get to talk to the imaginary friend.

Matt Smith:

Oh, that would’ve been really interesting to try and pick the imaginary friends brain a bit. What sort of imagination did the kids displayed? What sort of imaginary friends did they tell you about?

Dr Evan Kidd:

Well, like I said, this is the fun part of doing this research. So we have loads of different ones and that really that imaginary friends are reflections of the fantastic variety of imaginations that the kids have. So we had things like imaginary dogs, and we had one child one child had an imaginary friend that was named after Bon Jovi lyric. The lyric was Shot Through the Heart and You Give Love A Bad Name.

Matt Smith:

You Give Love A Bad Name.

Dr Evan Kidd:

And after I have heard this, I asked the mother if she was a Bon Jovi fan and she admitted to it reluctantly. There was one child who, in particular, was quite funny. He just didn’t have an imaginary friend. He had an imaginary world in a microcosm. And he had an imaginary wife and an imaginary baby. His wife wasn’t the mother of his baby. It was a nurse who traveled internationally. And when he was in the lab, his mother asked him about his imaginary wife and he turned to her and said, “Oh, I didn’t have her anymore. I divorced her because she spoke too much.” So that’s definitely my favorite one.

Matt Smith:

That’s an imaginary sitcom in the making.

Dr Evan Kidd:

Yeah, that’s right. So, like I said, the variety that you see give you a flavor of what this imaginary lives are like and they are massively varied and quite fantastic.

Matt Smith:

Yeah, yeah. So how did you go about sampling these children?

Dr Evan Kidd:

What we did was--this research was done when I was working in University of Manchester. And we had a big database of families and we sent letters out to the parents who had children who are age ranged. We were sending them out to kids who are about four to six; to families who had kids who are around four to six. And we just sent out a letter saying, “You know, we are doing this study on imaginary friends and does your child have one one? Would you like to bring them in?”

Imaginary friends are really common in a child’s development. I think its current estimates are up to 65% of children should have one at one point of development. So we expected a pretty big return rate and we expected to see quite a few of these kids. But we didn’t actually get many responses. And the responses that we’ve got were from parents who’re quite concerned about it; who were concerned that maybe this was a sign of mental illness or something like that.

And so then after speaking to these parents, we’ve decided to send out letters to the same parents again but tell them a little bit about how good it is to have one. And then suddenly we got flooded with parents who are putting their hands up to let their kids be in the study. So I guess what that showed was that there’s a lot of…

Matt Smith:

Stigma attached to it.

Dr Evan Kidd:

Yeah, right, it did. And a lot of this information, I guess, often in the media are films. Imaginary companions are depicted as a chronic signs of mental illness or of loneliness. And what we’re trying to do is really dispel that.

Matt Smith:

Well, the only one that comes to mind, unfortunately, is Drop Dead Fred.

Dr Evan Kidd:

Yes, yeah, yeah.

Matt Smith:

Unfortunately.

Dr Evan Kidd:

And I think Donnie Darko. He has a character that visits him in his dreams and it’s quite spooky and quite scary. Hopefully, as part of this research or the outcome of this research, is that we’ll be able to dispel some of these myths.

Matt Smith:

Was that your intention going in to the research?

Dr Evan Kidd:

Like I said, we had this interesting play and we wanted to see whether or not playing a lot with an imaginary companion can be linked to beneficial aspects of communication. We didn’t really anticipate that people would have this idea about or a stigma, like you said, about imaginary companions. But we did find that but hopefully. now we’ve righted some of those wrongs.

Matt Smith:

So what’s your next step in your research?

Dr Evan Kidd:

What we’re doing at the moment with one of my PhD students is we’re looking at kids who are older so primary school-aged kids to see whether or not they’ve got imaginary companions at the same, sort of, level as we expect to find them in children who are pre-school. And we definitely have found almost a similar percentage in those kids. But we’re also giving them real test of creativity and multiple test of creativity to see if we can quantify how creative these kids actually are in comparison to same age kids who don’t have imaginary friends.

Matt Smith:

Okay. So, hopefully, you’ll be able to see a real, sort of, tangible benefit to having imaginary friends.

Dr Evan Kidd:

Yeah. And also we’ll learn a bit more about it like we were talking about. Sometimes there are stigma attached to this and what we’d like to show is that this is a completely normal phenomenon in development and nothing to worry about. In fact, it might be something to celebrate.

Matt Smith:

Okay. Dr Evan Kidd, thank you for your time today.

Dr Evan Kidd:

Thanks.

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