It is fascinating how synchronicity comes into play at times. I was meeting a group of people I did not know too well when the conversation turned to a topic of interest to me - children's imaginary friends. As expected there was a range of responses. On a scale of 1-10 of interest, people scored across the spectrum. I was, however, intrigued by the comments of some of the more cynical participants. "Oh, hardly any children have those", Jean said in a dismissive way.
The following day, as if by magic, a colleague asked if I had heard about the latest research on imaginary friends. Karen Majors of the Institute of Education in London, UK gained media attention based on her PhD research into imaginary friends. Press coverage reminded us that research in the US has shown that 65% of children aged up to seven years old have or have had an imaginary friend. Further, a UK study of 1,800 children showed that 46% of them had also had one. At the age of 12, nine percent still reported having one.
The message was unequivocal. Contrary to Jean's view, imaginary friends are more common than she and many others think. But the implications of her comments are wider than a simple lack of awareness of research findings. They are indicative of one of the many reasons why a large number of adults find it difficult to fully empathise with children; aside from other contributory factors such as lapses of memory and rewriting one's own history, many adults unconsciously project their own experiences of childhood onto the majority of children. Jean had not had an imaginary friend and her own children had not had them, so she made the grand leap to assuming that they were uncommon. Given that it was not a topic of interest to her, she was unaware of research that shows that the opposite is the case.
The conversation I had with Jean is a reminder that if adults are to fully understand children, wider informed knowledge is needed beyond our own experience. Any engagement with research, of course, has to be critical. It is only natural to assume that others see and experience the world in the way that we do, and to move away from that mode of thinking can be difficult. But to learn to see the world through children's eyes is a very valuable and rewarding skill, perhaps even more so when we learn that their experiences are different to our own. And in case you are wondering why I am interested in imaginary friends, no, I never had one of my own. But I think it would have been fun if I had...