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Ask Dr. Sears: Encouraging an Active Imagination

Q. My 3-year-old son always imagines himself to be somebody else, from a superhero to a character in a book, and all of us around him have to play along. I have allowed this because I know imaginative play is important for kids, but it happens every day, almost nonstop! I'm concerned that it could mean he's not comfortable with himself. When people ask him what his name is, he'll sometimes respond "I don't know," or "Spider-Man." Do I continue to encourage or discourage his wild imagination?

A. It sounds like your son is a very bright and creative child going through the normal, preschool stage of pretend play-although he does seem to have a higher level of imagination than most children his age. Living in the world of make-believe is very comfortable for a child. Just imagine all the perks he gets from the characters in his imaginary world: Spider-Man can jump high and do feats your child probably wishes he could do himself. When he's lonesome during the day or fearful at night, Spider-man is there to keep him company or give him courage. Spider-Man doesn't boss him around, grab his toys, or tell him when he has to go to bed or eat. On the contrary, your son is the one in complete control. Whatever his needs are at the moment, he can drum up a fictitious character to meet them. Some adults pay therapists big money to learn how to do this! Your son's vivid imagination is undoubtedly something to be celebrated and encouraged  -- it could someday be one of his most valuable assets. Here's how you can enjoy this passing stage along with him:

Don't worry, be happy.

As a loving parent, you naturally want your child to be happy with himself. You don't need to conclude that because he imagines he's someone else he's dissatisfied with who he is or undervalues himself. Children don't think like that. They simply enjoy pretending that they're someone else because that character can do things they can't. Occasionally, you might want to play the role of another character along with him, and try not to read too much psychology into it. Show enthusiasm for the friendly characters and downplay the scary ones.

Use the fictitious characters to your advantage.

In my pediatric practice, I employ imaginative characters as a sleep tool. For example, in transitioning a toddler from the parent's bedroom to his own, I might call his big-kid bed "Spider-Man's bed." Imaginary alter egos or friends can also be used to encourage cooperation. Suppose your child won't eat his veggies. Say, "Spider-Man loves veggies! They help him jump higher." Or suppose you want him to put away his toys. Simply say, "Spider-Man always keeps his toys in one place."

Take it as an opportunity for re-bonding.

Playing along with your child's fantasy helps you get closer to him. His imaginative games provide a wonderful window into his mind. If he has a world full of happy characters, this tells you that he is happy most of the time. But if he has a mind full of fearful characters, take this as a clue that you need to step in and plant more fun and secure figures in his life.

Celebrate your child's creativity while it lasts.

He has a long life of reality ahead of him. In time, he will stop pretending to be a superhero and gradually lose one imaginative friend at a time as he becomes more comfortable and social with real ones. So let him enjoy being a child-and be one yourself sometimes, too.

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