Dear Mr. Dad: My four-year-old son has an imaginary friend named Bartholomew. He’s always talking to him, includes him in drawings of our family, reads him bedtime stories, and sometimes even pushes him on the swing when we’re at the park. In the car, we have a second car seat for Bartholomew. And if we don’t set a place at the table for Bart, my son refuses to eat. At first, this was all pretty cute. But when my son started to complain that his “friend” is bossy, won’t put away his toys, and sometimes won’t play fair, I started to get worried. Is there something wrong with my son?

A: To put your mind at ease, the existence of Bartholomew says nothing about your son’s mental state. Having imaginary playmates is a very normal part of growing up. In fact, according to a study published in the journal Developmental Psychology, by the time kids turn seven, two thirds have had at least one imaginary friend. In the preschool years, girls are more likely to have imaginary friends, but by age seven, boys are just as likely. Interestingly, boys tend to have only male invisible friends, while girls are more flexible. Fifty-seven percent of those invisible friends are human, 41% are animals.

Your son’s imaginary friend may benefit him—and you—in a number of ways.

  • Imaginary friends can help stimulate creativity and imagination. Having Bartholomew along for the ride will make those long trips to Mars (and the grocery store) a little less lonely.
  • They may help children cope with situations that trouble them by acting as a child’s trusted confidant when there’s no one else to his secrets to. Even preschoolers have issues that are too private to tell us.
  • Children with imaginary friends tend to be more social than those without, and they’re also more empathetic and able to imagine how others are feeling.
  • They can help children tell right from wrong. Young children often have trouble with impulse control and may find it hard to stop themselves from doing things they know are wrong. Blaming the imaginary friend for eating cookies before dinner may be a sign that the child understands right vs. wrong but isn’t quite ready to take complete responsibility.
  • They can give you an important glimpse into your son’s feelings. Listening to him bravely comfort poor Bartholomew, who’s about to get a shot at the pediatrician, is a pretty good clue that your son is more afraid than he’s letting on.

For the most part, don’t make a big deal about your son’s “friend.” That said, here are a few guildelines:

  • Your son needs human friends too. If he doesn’t have any or has no interest in being with real-life peers, talk to your pediatrician.
  • Your son needs to take responsibility. If he blames Bartholomew for breaking a glass, you can respond with something like, “I don’t care who did it—you’re going to help me sweep it up.”
  • Be respectful. Remember Bart’s name (and don’t call him Bart if you’re not supposed to), greet him when you meet, and apologize if you sit on him.
  • Don’t try to manipulate. “Bartholomew finished his dinner, why don’t you finish yours?” may sounds clever to you, but it won’t work.
  • Don’t try to take over. Bartholomew is your son’s friend, not yours.

Most kids lose their imaginary friends by the age of seven (although many keep them for many more years). Sometimes they’re forgotten, sometimes they’re sent on a distant—and permanent—trip, and other times they “perish” in a horrible accident.