Nearly all 3- and 4-year-olds develop “imaginary friends.” I’m always delighted when they do, for these friends are a sign of a child’s developing imagination.

As imagination surfaces in the third year, a child’s ability to separate reality and wishful thinking is not yet well-developed. The capacity to construct imaginary people, to bring a beloved doll to life, shows how rapidly he’s learning to test the limits of his world.

An imaginary friend becomes a way to cast out the new devils that now besiege him. Hate, envy, lying, selfishness, uncleanliness and any other flaw that he’s learning to feel guilty about can now be ascribed to someone else — an imaginary friend.

Imaginary friends give a child a safe way to find out who he wants to be. He can control these friends. He can be bad or good safely because of them. Through them, he can identify with children who otherwise are overwhelming to him. He can safely “become” another child.

He can also identify with each of his parents in the safe guise of these imaginary friends. He can be a male or a female. He can try out all sides of his personality. Thus he begins to find his identity.

If a child withdraws into loneliness, that’s a valid reason for concern. He should be learning to socialize with peers. But he still needs time to himself. If he can leave his private world to play with other children, I wouldn’t worry.

What effect does TV have on this important process of imagination-building? Bruno Bettelheim pointed out that fairy tales and other traditional bedtime stories stimulate the exploration of aggression and the identity-seeking that a child needs at this age. Television, except in small doses, has the opposite effect, imposing an artificial world of violence and unreachable good and evil and dominating the child’s own imaginative adventures.

What about a child who uses an imaginary friend to “lie” his way out of a bad situation? “Daddy, Buddy was playing with your computer when it stopped.” A parent may well wonder whether the child knows the difference between the wish and the reality, for lying at this age so obviously represents wishful thinking.

Without confronting him, the parent can point out the child’s need to wish for a different outcome. By accepting the wishful thinking but bringing the child back to reality, the parent is helping him learn his limits. The message a child needs to hear is, “You don’t need to lie. I can love you, even if I don’t like what you’ve done.”

Parents may resent imaginary friends. The more intensely a child protects his private language and his private friends, the more shut out and jealous his parents may feel.

Should parents get actively involved with the child’s fantasies? For example, should they set the table for the make-believe friends?

I would follow the child’s requests. Playing his game with him will not prevent him from knowing the difference between imaginary and “real” friends. Imaginary friends can be a kind of rehearsal for future friendships.

If parents feel they need to cut short the child’s imaginary play because he is too isolated from other children, I recommend the following steps.

1. Discuss the issue with him and suggest that you can help him to have more playmates. Let him know that you value his imaginary friends and respect his wonderful fantasies, but that you’d like to see that he has “real” friends, too.

2. Set him up with one or two regular playmates who are his speed — not too aggressive.

3. When he hides behind his imaginary friends instead of playing with live ones, don’t confront him. Tell him you love him and his imaginary friends, and you want him to feel safe enough to play with other children too.

4. Find opportunities for outings or activities that suit your child’s interests, and invite another child and his parent to join in. Choose things that would tend to encourage interaction. For example, if your child likes to poke around in the stream, let the friends explore it together.

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018. Questions may also be sent by email to: [email protected]