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Kiddie Quirks

After three-plus years of parenthood, life didn't seem like it could possibly get any wackier. Until the day I caught myself disciplining my daughter's imaginary friends  -- in public. Or the time I furiously called her "Dunkin Donuthead," the insult du jour among her preschool pals.

Kids' bizarre, often hilarious, idiosyncrasies  -- from make-believe friends and made-up words to unexpected clothing attachments  -- certainly can make life interesting, to say the least, for a parent. What's comforting to know is that as odd as these behaviors can be, they're really just normal, healthy ways for children to cope with their increasing independence.

Still, such eccentricities can be unnerving. Here, a few common quirks, and how to roll with them.

Christina Frank writes about health, psychology, and child rearing for PARENTING, Biography, and other magazines.

Make-believe Buddies

A couple of years after my daughter Olivia, now 5, was born, a number of other, uh, "people" came to live with us. The first to arrive were Bezza and Zezza. Bezza was a girl, sometimes Zezza's mommy, and always did the right thing. Zezza, a little boy, was bad to the bone. He broke rules, hit Olivia (and her dolls), and needed a seemingly endless string of time-outs to stay in line.

Imaginary friends may be invisible, but they're ubiquitous. As many as 60 percent of kids under 7 have them; they're somewhat more likely to be invented by widely spaced siblings and only children. The prime time for their appearance is around 4 or 5, though with some kids it's as early as 2. And though many children give them up around 6, it's not unusual to find an 8-year-old still playing with a pretend pal.

In this fantasy world, everything is fluid. Matthew Chaput, 5, of Windham, ME, has a buddy named Walter whose age changes on any given day. "Sometimes he's four, other times fourteen or eighteen," says Matthew's mother. Hannah Shmase, 6, of Peabody, Massachusetts, has seven pretend siblings.

"Imaginary friends come in many forms and fulfill different functions," says Marjorie Taylor, Ph.D., author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. "Some kids invent them because there's no one around to play with at the moment or because they need someone to talk to who can keep a secret during a stressful time, such as a divorce."

They also serve as a buffer between kids and parents, allowing a child to express ideas  -- without taking the heat herself. Imaginary friends can display fears that may be embarrassing to admit to. "A child doesn't want to tell her mother she's afraid of going down the drain, so she says it's her pretend friend's fear," says Taylor. "When the parent reassures the friend, she's actually reassuring her."

Pretend pals also allow a child to play-act various situations, which will further improve her social skills. In fact, kids with imaginary friends are often very social and have lots of real friends as well, says Taylor.

So how do you handle those extra family members? For starters, don't bother informing your child they aren't real; she knows. Kids are much better at distinguishing fantasy from reality than people think. Instead, consider these buddies a window into your child's mind.

Of course, when her imagination disrupts your plans, you have to take action. "Pretend dilemmas require pretend solutions," says Taylor. She tells of a little girl who refused to leave the house because her imaginary friend was sick. Her mother quickly invented another character who would stay with her daughter's make-believe pal. It worked.

Clothing Attachments

Jacob Thoning, 6, of Boulder, CO, has been obsessed with golf and Tiger Woods since he was 2. "He'll wear only plaid pants and polo shirts," says his mom.

Some kids are sensitive to the way clothing feels and choose the same thing again and again because it's the most comfortable item they own. And they aren't constrained by adults' rules. From the time they were 2 and 3 years old, Jacob's brothers, Jordan and Evan (now 8 and 9), have insisted on wearing their underwear backward  -- in their opinion, the hole in the front is uncomfortable and unnecessary.

Clothing quirks fall into the pick-your-battles category. If it seems important to your child's self-esteem or comfort to wear certain items, ask yourself whether it's really worth fighting over. Could it be that you're just plain embarrassed to have people think that you dressed him that way?

On the other hand, if it really is inappropriate for your child to wear a bathing suit to preschool or don fuzzy bunny slippers for church, then you need to set that limit for him. And in that case, experts suggest giving him two alternatives to choose from that are acceptable to you. This way, he still feels as if he has some say in the matter.

Strange Routines

Every day when he was younger, Jordan Thoning made his mom ask him, "Are you my sweetie or my honey today?"

"He'd choose one endearment for me to call him throughout the day," says his mother. "If I accidentally called him the other, he'd firmly correct me."

Nicole Bilotto, 2, of Fairfield, CT, will hold only her mom's index finger when they take a walk. "She can't have any other finger touch hers," says her mother. "I did it the wrong way once, and she stomped her feet and pulled her hand away from mine until we got it right."

"It's normal to have rituals," says Robert Pianta, Ph.D., professor of clinical and school psychology at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education. "For kids, it's a way of establishing order in their lives and decreasing anxiety  -- especially when they're in new or stressful situations. Some of them just take these rituals to the extreme."

It's good to indulge your child's need for certain routines when you can, but again, it's fine to set limits when going along with them is inconvenient (or even irritating). "Kids need to learn how to go with the flow," says Pianta. To help, explain why you must do things differently: Maybe you have to stop at the drugstore, so today you can't take the preferred route to the playground; or perhaps you need to grab your child's entire hand when you're crossing a busy street. "Make a game of it," says Pianta. For example, you could ask your child to think of three new ways to hold your hand. "This gets her involved in finding alternatives without feeling threatened." Be careful not to call a lot of attention to the behavior, particularly in a negative way.

Though most ritualized behavior is harmless and fleeting, it could be problematic if she's too dependent on it. For example, if your child spends so much time arranging her chair in a certain way at the table that she doesn't get to eat or becomes hysterical if you interrupt, that could signal a more serious matter.

Talking Gibberish

"Spinkey!" Olivia would shout at me furiously when she was 3, then slam her door. Other days she'd hurl comparable made-up barbs like "Ponitsnip!" or "Stunko!"

These were what I call her safe curses. What she really wanted to do was call me a poopyface (her ultimate put-down), but she knew she wouldn't get away with that, so she'd cleverly substitute a fake word  -- without sparing the angry intonation.

"At around three, kids start to become aware of right and wrong," says Beverly Hubbard, Ph.D., clinical director of psychology at Children's Hospital Medical Center, in Cincinnati. "They know that if they use a 'bad' word, they'll get a time-out, so they get around it by coming up with their own words."

Preschoolers are also learning to have fun with their language skills, which are becoming increasingly sophisticated. "A child now understands the power of language," notes Pianta. "So he plays with words, as he would with toys."

It's fun to encourage such creativity, but you needn't put up with insults (even if they're made-up) or go out of your way to understand what your child is saying. "Participating in your kids' gibberish too much may make it harder for them to break away from it in the future," says Pianta.

A Change of Identity

All children engage in role-playing, but some will take it a step further and insist on being called by another name or on being treated as a certain character with specific attributes. "This is just a form of fantasy play," says Taylor. Imaginary identities are especially common in boys and surface as early as age 2 or 3. Jake Anderson, 5, of Parker, SD, wanted to be addressed as Cool Dog for about a month. Anna Binder of Austin, TX, only wanted to be called Repenta when she was 3½. "I don't know where the name came from," says her mom, "but she was hysterical if we called her anything else."

Imaginary identities are more vexing than imaginary friends, since they require parents' active participation and a willingness to follow your child's orders. Merely calling her by a new name is one thing, if she retains her human characteristics. But some kids morph into animals or objects. At age 5, Sophie Christenberry of Brooklyn, NY, changed into "Miss Kitten." Her normally impressive verbal abilities were reduced to meowing, though she could nod yes or no. "She'd paw at you and wanted to eat out of a dish on the floor," says her father. "Eventually we told her she had to respond to us in a normal way!"

Though you may feel reluctant to curtail your child's imagination, it's fine to set limits if everyday life is being disrupted. When you draw the line, she'll eventually curb her alter-identity.

The fact is, as soon as kids reach elementary school, role-playing  -- like sartorial independence or any other quirky characteristic  -- becomes increasingly taboo. So revel in this brief age of nonconformity. The day will come when she'll be mortified to even think of being different in any way from her pals. And won't that be kind of sad?