How Children Think About the Mind

One powerful way children learn is by attending to and interacting with people around them. Humans are social creatures, and babies and toddlers are especially attuned to social cues, such as their parents’ facial expressions and where their parents are looking. However, when it comes to learning about the internal social aspects of people, like their beliefs, desires and thoughts, young children often struggle to realize that other people may think differently than they do.

In psychology, “Theory of Mind” is a term used to describe the understanding of one’s own or others’ mind and how it influences behavior. Many scientists have focused their research on studying when babies and toddlers understand that people have cognitions, like thoughts and desires, and when they understand that those cognitions influence behavior. For example, in one study, 14-month-olds hear an adult express how much she likes broccoli and that she doesn’t like Goldfish crackers, but when given the option to give some food to the adult, the infant chooses to give what she herself wants (crackers) rather than what the adult wants (broccoli). The researchers suggest that it’s not until after 18-months of age that infants understand that someone may have different preferences than they do. This is probably why toddlers often give people gifts that they themselves like (like a stuffed animal or a favorite blanket), even though an adult would not necessarily like it.

Young children also don’t fully understand that adults have different beliefs than them, and that people can also hold incorrect beliefs. In one popular study, 3-year-olds are shown a Crayon box and are asked, “What do you think is inside this box?” Of course, children respond that Crayons are in the box. Then, the experimenter shows them that the box actually contains stickers or something else that is unexpected. The experimenter than asks the child two questions to measure their theory of mind: “What did you think was in the box when I asked you before?” and “If we ask your friend what’s in the box, what would he/she say?”

Surprisingly, children younger than 4-years-old typically answer both questions based on their current beliefs. They answer that they previous thought stickers were in the box, and that their friend would also think stickers are in the box. Importantly, these 3-year-olds are not lying. Instead, they struggle to understand that people may have false beliefs about the interior of the Crayon box, including that they themselves could have previously had a false belief. These children assume that other people hold the same beliefs as themselves.

 Learning about the mind – both one’s own and others – is not an easy task. It’s important to remember that we adults have learned with time how to take someone’s perspective or entertain someone’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it. For young children, the first step in understanding how other people think is recognizing that people do not prefer the same things as you, or even hold the same beliefs as you.

Don’t be surprised if your toddler gives you a not-so-thoughtful gift; they’re just assuming you’ll like their toys too!

What Do Babies Like?

We develop many of our preferences with experience. A cat may have scratched you when you were a child, and therefore you prefer not to be left alone with cats. However, babies come into this world already having many likes and dislikes. Some preferences are hard-wired and help babies attend to – and learn from – their environment.

First, babies love human faces. Even newborns prefer human faces to other interesting objects such as toys. For example, studies show that babies prefer to look at human faces compared to scrambled or upside down human faces. This preference for human faces is important because attending to human faces is necessary for babies to then recognize familiar faces (like their mother) and make associations between faces and sounds (like speech). Interestingly, research shows that babies prefer attractive faces compared to less attractive faces. The researchers asked adults rate faces on attractiveness; then they showed infants composites of attractive and unattractive faces. The infants preferred to look at the attractive faces, perhaps because attractive faces are more closely aligned with stereotypical faces, which babies have evolved to recognize.

Babies also love novelty. In fact, researchers have relied on babies’ preference for new things as a way of measuring what babies know and don’t know. For example, one way of testing whether infants understand the physical properties of objects (like whether a box resting on the edge of a table should fall over), is to show infants just that and measure where they look. For example, one study showed infants a box falling off the edge of a table, as well as the box sitting impossibly on the edge of the table. If the infant looked longer at the box sitting impossibly on the edge, it would indicate that the infant see something “new” or different about that box, and therefore that they detect that something is not normal. Babies’ preference for novelty helps them attend to new things in their environment and therefore can provide opportunities for learning.

Finally, babies also prefer to listen to their native language over a foreign language — even at birth. One study had two-day old infants listen to an audio track of their native language (English) and a foreign language (Spanish). Infants could control which audio track played by changing the rate of their sucking. The researchers found that the infants activated the audio track that played their native language more than the foreign language. Interestingly, research suggests newborn infants can also detect the difference between their native language and a foreign language, suggesting that infants are picking up on the intonation and sounds of their mother’s speech before they are even born. More so, babies prefer and learn more from infant-directed speech (i.e., baby talk) compared to adult-directed speech due to the high intonation, dramatized facial expressions and positive emotions that go along with it.

So what do babies like? Babies like human faces, novelty and their native language, which is exactly why babies love games and interactions like peek-a-boo so much. Not only do they get to see a human face and hear infant-directed speech, but covering the face helps the infants to somewhat forget what the adult looks like, while re-exposing it makes the face like new to them. Next time you want to entertain an infant, make sure you give them your best peek-a-boo face!

New Guidelines for Children and Media

About two weeks ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a new policy statement on young children’s media use, including both the potential educational benefits and health concerns for children aged five years and younger. Previously, the AAP advocated for no screen time for children under the age of two, but based on some new research showing that toddlers can learn from interactive technology, the AAP revised their conclusions and made several important recommendations for parents:

  • Continue to engage in hands-on, unstructured play with your child. This is the AAP’s way of saying, “We’re about to loosen our guidelines for children’s media use, but that doesn’t mean you should substitute hands-on learning with media.” A separate AAP report describes research that shows exploration, puzzle play and parent-child interaction can benefit children’s social, emotional and cognitive development, so keep doing this.
  • For children younger than 18-months, discourage media use other than video chat. There is a lot of research showing that children between 12- and 18-months learn better from live interaction compared to video, also known as the video-deficit effect. However, in the past few years research has emerged suggesting toddlers can learn from some interactive media. For example, 24-month olds can learn new words from a Skye interaction with an adult. Also, parents that I’ve talked to were letting their toddlers video chat anyway, and since there is no evidence that video chat is bad for children, this is really a way of making parents feel less guilty for something they were already doing.
  • For children 18- to 24-months, parents who want to introduce media should do so IF the media is high quality and if parents and children use the media together. We know that children can learn STEM concepts, literacy and social-emotional skills from high quality educational television, such as Sesame Street and PBS programming. We also know that co-viewing and co-use – when parents watch or use media with their children – helps children understand the content they are consuming. For example, with e-books, children benefit when parents elaborate on the narrative and ask children questions about the story, as long as the features of the e-book aren’t distracting. Therefore, parents can expose their 18- to 24-month olds to high quality media if they are co-viewing with them, but parents should avoid letting children in this age range use media alone.
  • For children older than 2-years, limit media use to an hour per day and use with your child when possible to increase learning and interaction. Despite the educational benefits of media, limiting media use to an hour per day helps remind parents that their children should be engaging in other types of educational activities, like pretend play, block play and playing with other children. Although older children are better able to understand television and digital games, restricting children’s use is a good way to make sure they are engaging in other beneficial, hands-on activities.
  • No screens during meal times and an hour before bed. Considering children’s health, research shows that having a media device present during mealtime is associated with less parent-child interaction. Moreover, the blue light emitted from screens may lead to shorter sleep durations for children when screens are used at night before bed. One good practice is to not allow media in the bedroom or at the kitchen table during meals.
  • Educate yourself and seek out resources. There are lots of resources available to parents on how to engage with their children and media in healthy ways. Parents can develop a Family Media Use Plan, find high-quality television shows and apps and can educate themselves on early child development. One good resource is org, which is an organization that evaluates and reviews media, so that parents and educators know what media is age appropriate, how to engage with children around media, and which programs and games have been shown to have educational benefits. You can also refer to this blog or visit our center’s website to learn more about new research on children and media.

These new guidelines are important because pediatricians are the first practitioners who can inform parents on healthy media behavior for their infants in children. But of course, research on touch screens and media is rapidly emerging, so it’s important to keep in mind that these recommendations may change, either to become more stringent or more lax. One of my goals with this blog is to keep parents and educators up-to-date on the latest research, so I encourage you to use this as a source of information about children and healthy media habits.

Learning to Love: How Parents Shape Children’s Later Relationships

Humans need more than food, water and shelter to survive. Because we are social beings, we also need to learn from a young age to depend on others, how to give and receive affection and that our physical and emotional needs will be met. Caregivers are the first people who fulfill those essential emotional needs for their children, and parent-child relationships have been shown to have real, long-term influences on children’s development.

Why do early parent-child relationships matter so much? First, infants depend completely on their parents. When an infant cries and their parent responds with food, affection or a diaper change, the infant learns that its needs will be met. Psychologists call this attachment because it means just that – children become attached to their parents because they know that their parents will take care of them and that they are protected.

Despite the dependent-nature of attachment, one important facet of attachment is that infants and children who are attached will venture away from their parent, exploring new things and their surrounding. This is because infants who are attached feel safe; they implicitly know that if something were to happen to them, their parent would be there instantly to respond to their needs. This doesn’t mean children who get upset with new people or things aren’t forming a bond with their parent – obviously, children are going to get scared and miss their parents sometimes – but a crucial aspect of attachment is that it is consistent and enduring – children who are attached know their parent will respond to their needs, meaning they are safe to explore as long as their parent is close by.

But attachment is not only important for parent-child bonds. In fact, fifty years of research shows that infants who have strong emotional bonds with their caregiver grow up to be more emotionally competent compared to those who have weak or inconsistent emotional bonds. Children who are securely attached to their parents grow up to express their emotions more, be more socially competent, and display more empathy compared to children who are insecurely attached to their parent.

Perhaps more importantly, research shows that securely attached infants grow up to have better quality relationships later in life. Children who grow up expecting their caregivers to be responsive and loving learn to expect that from other close relationships in their lives, like from friends and romantic partners. A new study followed up with participants over the course of 78 years and found that attachment in childhood predicted adult attachment to their spouses. The researchers suggest that children who had warm and responsive parents developed better strategies for dealing with negative emotions, which perhaps helped them deal with marital conflict and general life stresses.

Unfortunately, not all children grow up with responsive parents, and these children often exhibit emotional problems later in life. One extreme case of this is the Romanian Orphanages that were over-flooded with children in the 1980s despite there not being enough caregivers. Children received inconsistent care and were essentially neglected for many hours a day. When these infants were adopted years later, many had issues forming an attachment with their caregiver – some showing difficulties forming a relationship, others showing “indiscriminate friendliness,” in which they showed affection for many people even though they weren’t their caregiver or family members.

Attachment is one of the most well researched topics in child development, probably because parent-child attachment has such long-lasting effects on children’s wellbeing. From the moment infants are born, their parents are teaching them what it means to have a connection with another human being. In a sense, children’s first relationship with their parents forms the basis for their future relationships, teaching children what they should expect from their close bonds.

What do kids think of themselves?

Parents often say that their child has a unique personality. Even from infancy, babies seem to have their own temperaments, likes, dislikes and specific ways of interacting with the world. While adults think children have distinct qualities, do young children see themselves as having their own personality? How do children view themselves as people?

Before children can even reflect on who they are as people, they must first be able to recognize that they are their own person and not just an extension of their caregiver. From their birth, infants are wholly dependent on their caregivers. It’s not until later in infancy that they discover that they have an identity separate from their caregiver. If you have an 8- to 15-month old infant who experiences separation anxiety, you’ve already witnessed your infant becoming self-aware.

To see whether toddlers are self-aware, researchers often perform the Rouge Test – they put a small red mark on the child’s forehead while she is in front of the mirror to see whether she touches her own head (and therefore is self-aware) or touches the mirror (which suggests she thinks her image is another child). Research shows that children start to succeed on this test around 18-months. By about 2-years of age, toddlers have clear self-awareness. They can identify themselves in pictures, they use first person language (“mine!”) and they start to express self-conscious emotions. For example, it’s not until about 2-years that children start to feel shame, which explains why kids often feel no remorse for doing things like this.

Once infants realize they are indeed separate entities from their parents, they begin to develop a self concept: they see themselves as individuals who have certain physical social and internal characteristics. For pre-school and elementary school children, this often consists of concrete, observable characteristics like “I have brown hair” and “I have a brother and sister.” These characteristics also tend to be positive – sometimes unrealistically positive. A good example is a personal anecdote from when my sibling and I were interviewed by the local newspaper about a summer reading program. At age 7, I told the reporter I was planning to read 8,000 books that summer. Clearly, I thought highly of my reading abilities.


“That’s enough to interest kids like the three Sheehan children. Erin, 9, plans to read 100 books this summer; her 13-year old brother, Brenton, hopes to read 13 (long ones); and young Kelly, 7, said she’s shooting for 8,000.”

Children develop more realistic self-perceptions later in elementary and middle school and also start to develop more complex personas, like realizing they can be both mean and nice in different situations. So while elementary and middle childhood consists of children developing an understanding of their own individual qualities, much of the first years of life involves infants simply recognizing they are their own entities. And by the time they realize they are their own person, they usually think of themselves as being pretty awesome.

Parents – if you think your child is being a bit egotistical, know that they are simply developing their personality. With more experience, they’ll begin to realize they cannot actually read 8,000 books in one summer.

All Children Experience Failure – What Matters is How Parents Respond

Life is hard sometimes. For young kids who are learning new skills and trying new sports, success can be rare. All kids fail at some point, so how should adults respond to their failure in a way that promotes learning and resilience?

Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, has built her career on research that answers that question. She studies children’s views of intelligence and ability, and has discovered that children usually fall into one of two categories: they either have a fixed mindset, and believe intelligence and ability is fixed and cannot be changed, or they have a growth mindset, and believe intelligence and ability can be developed with hard work and help. Children with a fixed mindset are often frustrated and disheartened in the face of failure, while children with a growth mindset become more motivated when they experience a challenge or setback.

These mindsets have real implication for children’s motivation and achievement in school. Research shows that children’s intelligence mindsets predict their achievement when faced with academic challenges, as well as their completion of difficult coursework.

One might think that parents transmit their own intelligence mindsets to their children, but researchers have found little evidence of a link between parents’ own mindset and their children’s. This makes sense once you consider that parents’ beliefs are not visible, and therefore children might not pick up on them.

What is visible is how parents respond to their children’s failure. New research from Carol Dweck and her colleague shows that while parents’ mindsets about ability and intelligence do not predict their children’s mindsets, parents’ failure mindsets do predict their children’s mindsets about ability and intelligence. Parents who though failure was debilitating rather than and opportunity for growth and learning tended to have children who had fixed mindsets. More so, the researchers found that children’s reports of their parents’ attitudes toward failure also predicted children’s mindsets, suggesting that children do indeed perceive their parents’ negative attitudes about failure, which shapes their perceptions of their own intelligence and ability.

Parents do seem to influence whether their children perceive intelligence as either fixed or malleable, which ultimately suggests that parents can help their children develop positive views of their own ability to grow, learn and succeed when faced with a setback.

If your child comes home with a poor grade, loses her swim meet, or can’t play the saxophone at first, it’s important to be mindful of how you respond to those failures. Being visibly worried and telling your child that she is not going to be good at everything may communicate not only that failure is bad, but also that something inherent makes her fail. In contrast, telling your child that she can do better if she asks the teacher or coach for help communicates that failure is an opportunity to change and growth – that she has the ability to become really good at something, even if she at first struggled.

As a parent, your response to failure not only shapes your child’s feelings about that set back, but may also shape their perceptions about their ability to grow and learn throughout their lives.

Young Children Can Build Science Skills with Spatial Play

In 2009, the U.S. ranked 20th out of 67 countries in science, way below the international average, and in 2012 the U.S. dropped another four spots in rank. In response, President Obama released a report on how to improve interest and achievement in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines. There’s since been a huge educational push to incorporate more STEM principles into K-12 curriculum, with the hope that today’s children will be more likely to pursue STEM disciplines when they grow up.

But research is emerging that suggests children can learn STEM principles before they enter formal schooling. Specifically, research shows that spatial play – playing with puzzles, blocks and shapes – promotes spatial skills, which are essential for success in STEM disciplines.

You’re probably thinking: What spatial skills can a 2-year-old learn? Is playing with Legos really going to help my child become an engineer?

First, playing with spatial toys gives children multiple opportunities to learn spatial skills. For example, fitting a 3-D shape or a puzzle piece into its slot teaches children spatial transformation (i.e., the skill that makes you really good at moving an object so that it fits into your trunk). In fact, research shows that this skill is important for succeeding in higher STEM education like dental school, where students have to know (and mentally rotate) the 3-D structure of teeth.

Second, many research studies suggest early spatial skills may be important for developing STEM skills, specifically math skills. For example, research shows that spatial skills at age 3 predict math skills at age 4, and other research shows that spatial skills measured in first or second grade predicted children’s improvement in math performance at the end of the school year.

Although these studies only measured children’s learning over the course of a year, they provide initial evidence that spatial learning contributes to the development of STEM skills. So far, there is no direct evidence showing that spatial play in early childhood predicts STEM success in adulthood, but research has linked spatial play with spatial skills, which have been shown to be important for STEM success in adolescents and adults.

Another way spatial toys may promote spatial skills is by prompting parents to use spatial language with their children. For example, parents may use spatial language to describe objects in a way that draws children’s attention to the spatial aspects of the shapes, like calling a circle “curved” or describing a triangle as having three points. Similarly, parents may describe what the child is doing with the object, which can help the child conceptualize their spatial play (“Does it fit in there? It’s a rectangle, so try turning it again”). A longitudinal research study shows that parents’ use of spatial language at 14- to 16-months predicted children’s spatial language and performance on a number of spatial tests at age 4.

Although we need more research, young children may benefit from playing with spatial toys like blocks, puzzles and shapes. Playing with Legos may not give children all the skills they need to be astronauts and doctors, but playing with spatial toys may give them the hands-on experience they need to at least begin thinking like a scientist.

Do Children Understand Symbols? It Depends

As adults, we use symbols every day. We use maps to navigate our surroundings, post pictures on social media, and watch television to gain information about the world. Many of our experiences depend on the realization that a symbol (a picture of your house) stands for something other than itself (your actual house).

But although adults use symbols every day, toddlers and children often don’t understand that symbols refer to other things in the world.

For example, research shows that when 18-month-olds were taught new words for hand-drawn pictures depicted in a book, they didn’t learn the new words. Other research shows that when 12- to 18-month-olds watched a video designed to teach them new words over the course of multiple weeks, they didn’t learn any more words than a group of infants who didn’t watch the video, suggesting they didn’t learn anything from the video.

Why do toddlers struggle to learn from something that is so seemingly transparent?

Research in symbolic development – or how children come to understand that a symbol is intended to stand for something else – suggests that toddlers and young children often focus on the symbol itself rather than what it refers to. This prevents them from learning. In the above examples, this means that toddlers will focus on the colorful picture or the television animations rather than on what these symbols stand for in the real world.

That means that when symbols are interesting objects or things, it often means they are bad symbols. Specifically, toy-like symbols are very appealing to toddlers and preschool-aged children, which means children often struggle to learn from them. Two-year-olds typically fail to use a doll as a symbol for their own body, and 2.5-year-olds struggle to use a dollhouse-like model to find a hidden object in a room that the model represents.

The problem is that symbol-makers – television show producers, picture book creators, makers of educational toys – often design symbols to be appealing so that children will want to play with them, but this may actually decrease children’s ability to learn from them. Research shows that 20-month-olds learned fewer new words for pictures in a 3-D pop-up picture book compared to a traditional, 2-D picture book. The pop-up images were likely more eye-catching to toddlers, but actually reduced toddlers’ ability to learn from them as symbols.

With age and experience, children eventually become skilled symbol users like adults. But while toddlers and young children are getting there, simple, obvious symbols may be key to learning.

For instance, although 18-month-olds struggle to learn from cartoonish picture books, they did learn when the pictures in the book were highly realistic, like photographs. Here, learning from a realistic, 2-D picture helped toddlers make the direct connection between the picture and the object it represented.

Getting a jump on symbolic learning may help children use learning tools at earlier ages. When selecting picture books or educational toys and television shows, remember that simplicity is sometimes key when it comes to learning from symbols, especially for younger children. If the show or object is too interesting in itself, it will be more difficult for children to see through the symbol to the object or concept we expect them to learn.

Why Knowing Less Helps Children Learn More

Considering many kids believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, it seems safe to assume that we get smarter with age. From childhood to adulthood, people learn how to read and write, gain skills for their careers, and generally learn how to function in a complex and changing world. Most people like to think that they learn more about how the world works as they grow up.

While people do gain more knowledge over time, knowing more can restrict the way they think. This is because people often rely on their previous knowledge to solve a problem, yet it may limit the solutions they consider.

Think for a second of as many uses for a brick as you can. If you’re like most adults, you’ll come up with building a house or laying a path. But ask a preschooler to think of various uses for a brick (what psychologists call the “Alternative Uses Test” and use to measure creativity), and the child is likely to come up with more imaginative answers: “use as a bed for my hamster” or “pretend it’s an ice cream sandwich.” Adults already know what bricks are used for, so it is more difficult for them to think outside the box.

But children are not hampered by knowledge. They are free to think in whatever way they please, which in some ways can make them better at learning than adults. For example, infants are better at learning languages than older children and adults. This is not only because infants are born equipped with brains that allow them to learn language easily, but also because older children and adults have already learned the vocabulary, speech sounds, and syntax (how words are put together in sentences) of their native language. Knowing their native language makes it difficult for them to learn the rules of a different language without trying to apply the rules of their own native language.

For example, research shows that infants are better at discriminating speech sounds than adults, which is an essential first step in learning a language. Psychologist Janet Werker and her colleagues at University of British Columbia had 6-month-olds and English-speaking adults listen to two similar speech sounds in Hindi. Infants were taught to turn their head toward a speaker when there was a change in sound, and adults were told to push a button when they heard a change in sound. The 6-month olds could differentiate the two similar sounds while the adults could not. Because adults have formed expectations about the speech sounds they hear, they are not able to distinguish the foreign sounds. But 6-month-olds have not learned the speech sounds of their native language, so they are able to pick up on the subtle but important differences, which helps them learn language.

Children’s lack of knowledge also helps them consider multiple options when trying to solve a problem. Imagine your television won’t turn on. You will probably try various solutions – push the power button, check that it’s plugged in, shake the cable box violently. You try process of elimination because adults have learned that most outcomes have single causes.

Children haven’t learned that yet. To study how children and adult understand causes, psychologists at the University of California, Berkley designed a series of studies called the blicket detector test. Pre-school-aged children and adults watch as an experimenter places small shapes on a box called a “blicket detector,” and some of these shapes make the box light up and play music. Participants are shown single objects (e.g., one star) and combinations of objects (a star and a triangle) that activate the machine. Then the experimenter takes out a new set of shapes and shows the participants which of those objects set off the machine. To test whether children and adults learned the causal rules, they are then given the shapes and asked to activate the machine.

While both children and adults learn which individual objects make the machine turn on, pre-school-aged children are better than adults at learning how combinations of objects activate the machine. Because adults typically associate outcomes with single causes, they incorrectly assume that only one of the two shapes on the machine made the machine turn on. Children – who know less about causes and outcomes – were more open-minded about what made the machine go off, and therefore learned the combination of objects. According to the authors of the study, the preschoolers were better than the adults at learning abstract rules and patterns.

There can be drawbacks in simply having more knowledge. Children may not be able to explain what makes a light turn on, but their lack of knowledge actually makes them expert learners, creative thinkers, and innovative problem solvers. Don’t be so quick to assume that you’re smarter than a fifth grader, because knowing less actually makes kids better thinkers – perhaps even better than you.

The Benefits of Pretend Play — and Why Parents Shouldn’t Play Along

Pretending is a common activity in childhood. If you were like me as a kid, you pretended all the time. I pretended to care for my stuffed animals, that the floor was hot lava, and that I was Disney characters, mostly Princess Jasmine.

But pretending isn’t all fun and games — it’s actually a complex cognitive activity that has profound influence on a child’s learning and social development.

When children pretend, they’re using something to stand for something else. When I pretended the floor was hot lava, the floor represented lava and the couches around my living room represented land that kept me safe. Using something to represent something else is a symbolic activity — just like using a map to navigate a city is a symbolic activity.

Although pretending is complex, children start to pretend on their own around 12-months of age and continue throughout childhood. Their pretense usually starts with simple acts, like pretending to put a baby doll to sleep, and then becomes more complex, like using objects to pretend (pretending a banana is a phone) or enacting social scenarios with other kids (playing cops and robbers).

The most important aspect of pretend play is that it provides children with a safe space to practice skills, imagine different situations and experience conflict without any real-word repercussions. Think about imaginary friends — children create their own companions that they can interact with in whatever way they want, which often includes unpleasant situations, like getting into arguments.

In a research paper in which children were interviewed about their imaginary friends, one child described her friend as an invisible, 7-inch tall elephant that wore a tank top and was sometimes mean to the child. Another child said her imaginary friend put yogurt in her hair.

Having an imaginary friend allows children to experience negative emotions like sadness and anger that have no actual retribution in the real world. And because these children make a safe space for themselves to experience these situations at a young age, they tend to have better social skills when they are older.

Research shows that children with imaginary friends tend to be more creative, outgoing and better at identifying and dealing with their emotions. Research also shows similar findings for children that engage in pretend play. Children’s pretend play predicts their creativity, social skills and their ability to understand other people’s feelings.

Children benefit from creating their own absurd and unpredictable imaginary worlds, so if parents interfere and try to guide their children’s pretense or conform it to reality, they can restrict their children’s creativity. Research shows there is a negative correlation between number of adults present in play area and the frequency and sophistication of children’s social pretend play. In other words, when there are more adults, children pretend less and their pretense is less creative.

Although children pretend play and imaginary friends may seem ridiculous to us, engaging in fantasy play is really awesome for children’s social and emotional development. As adults, we should do our best to encourage pretend play without interfering with it. Embrace the ridiculousness of your child’s pretend play, because it’s their way of learning how to behave in the real world.