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When You've Lost Control of the Imaginary Friends, You've Lost Control

My four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Corrie, has an imaginary friend named Katie Mexico. Katie lives in our house, joined occasionally by her brother Mel Mexico (he tends to be in and out -- a vagabond imaginary friend, if you will). Katie may be simply a figment of my daughter’s charming imagination, but she is also wearing me out.

(Before I explain further, let me clear up that I am sympathetic to the importance of imaginary friends -- I had one as a child, too. Her name was Tonya, and she wore a dress remarkably similar to that of Scooby Doo’s Daphne. Come to think of it, she was often joined by her brother, Kimmy-ko, who tended to stop by only occasionally. I guess transient imaginary siblings must run in the family.)

I remember enjoying my “talks” with Tonya, and I remember how much fun it was to have a playmate who operated entirely by the dictates of my own imagination. So when Katie Mexico joined our family, I welcomed her. My daughter lives in a houseful of brothers; it seems natural she would desire a more sisterly companion. I love it that Corrie has an active and precocious imagination. To keep the lines clear, I’ve encouraged Corrie’s creative “Katie play”, while still pointing out that Katie is pretend.

Corrie agrees. “Yes,” she always says, “Katie is a pretend friend.”

But she’s a pretend friend with issues.

Katie is a mischievous little soul, frequently (as I’m told, by my wide-eyed daughter with a flair for the dramatic) pulling stunts Corrie is not allowed to do. Katie uses bad words sometimes (i.e. “shut up” and “stupid”), and she doesn’t clean up her messes. She tends to be bossy, and once she even crossed the street without looking first.

It appears my daughter is not only imaginative, she is clever: she is clearly using Katie as a guinea pig to test her own boundaries. She reports Katie’s mischief to me, to see how I’ll respond. Wanting to communicate to Corrie that our household rules matter to everyone, I’ve been thrust into the unique position of having to scold, correct and otherwise discipline a person who does not actually exist.

Yes, really.

I get eye-to-eye (I think) with Katie Mexico and tell her that she has to play by our rules, or she can’t play with Corrie anymore. Corrie nods self-righteously, for emphasis. I give Katie’s head (I think) a pat, and off the two friends go.

(They don’t prepare you for this stuff in Lamaze class.)

My tough-love strategy has worked: Katie (I’m told) has lately pulled her act together. Corrie and Katie get along beautifully now, holding tea parties and playing hide-and-seek (you can imagine that Katie has a distinct advantage at the latter, being, you know, invisible.) Last week, Katie was evidently struck by a nasty cold. “Can you take her to the imaginary doctor?” Corrie asked. “Yes,” I answered.

It was so pleasant sitting in imaginary traffic, finding an imaginary parking place and paying an imaginary co-pay, I’ve about decided my daughter is onto something after all.