Children’s Invisible Companions

An Interview with Dr. J. Bradley Wigger

Some children develop imaginary friends to keep them company. Others describe spiritual experiences that feature visions of angels or conversations with long-dead ancestors. Bradley Wigger studies the variety of invisible companions that can populate children’s lives. He’s gathered data from kids and their families in five countries across three continents so far.


Interview with Brad Wigger

Karen-Marie Yust 00:01

Hi, everybody. This is Karen-Marie and Erin with Real Kids, Real Faith. And today, we’re talking with Bradley Wigger, who’s the author of Invisible Companions: Encounters with Imaginary Friends, Gods, Ancestors, and Angels. Welcome, Brad. And thanks for being with us today.

Brad Wigger 00:21

Thank you. It’s great to be with you.

Erin Reibel 00:24

Brad, can you tell us, first off, what are invisible companions?

Brad Wigger 00:29

In the book, invisible companions are everything that we might think of as kids’ imaginary friends. They’re clearly imaginary, playful. Kids will even call them things like ‘pretend friends’ or ‘imagination friends’ who are invisible.

But I use the term to also include – well, I’ll put it this way – some kids, when we asked them about their invisible friend, they would name, like one child named the Holy Spirit, another child named God, another child named Jesus Christ. Other children talked about angels, or spirits, and that kind of thing.

So I use the term invisible companions to try to hold all that together. If I called them all imaginary friends, that’s kind of a judgment against the kids who called their invisible friend God, for example. So invisible companions, for at least the way I was working with them in the book, are all of those.

Karen-Marie Yust 01:41

So, you’ve talked about a whole bunch of different kinds of invisible companions. But the big question a lot of parents have is, should they be worried if their child has an invisible companion? What do you think?

Brad Wigger 01:54

Well, the quick answer is no. But I’ll tell you why.

I think you should not be worried. If anything, I would say enjoy the ride, just like you might enjoy a novel. Now I’m talking about children’s imaginary friends.

In fact, my daughter had one when she was three years old. And that’s what got me so interested in the subject, and it took a long time before I was in a position to be able to actually study kids with imaginary friends.

But I finally got there about ten years ago, and then spent several years, first here in Louisville, Kentucky, where I live, interviewing kids with them, and eventually, kids all over the world. I went to Nepal and Kenya and Malawi and the Dominican Republic. And I found the phenomenon in all those places.

The reason I think parents, it’s understandable that they might worry, because of the culture that we’ve been in, that has led us to worry about children’s thinking when they’re young.

This goes back as far back as Freud and then later even with Jean Piaget, who was a prominent psychologist of children’s thinking in the mid-part of the 20th century. The thing was that they thought that children start out in the world, in Freud’s language, in just pure id, in pure irrationality, and development was a process of becoming more reality-focused.

So neither one of them thought children could differentiate fantasy from reality until middle childhood or so within that kind of framework. And imagination – a rich imagination and imaginary friend and invisible friend – maybe indicates that a child has not grown up or is not growing up, because they’re lost in irrationality.

But I think they got that just backward. And I’m not the only one saying that. My research is part of a trend over the last two and a half decades or so – psychologists who have been exploring the imagination – and it looks more to be the case that children, babies start out really reality-focused. They sense the world around them, and in a very, in a very sense-based bodily way.

And it’s not until the second year or so that there’s any sign that children pretend or engage in imaginary play; it’s around the same time that language develops, as well. And so what it now looks like is that the emergence of pretend play, imaginative play, is more a developmental achievement that allows children to practice relationships. So that’s the way I actually think of it the most.

I think that’s the biggest thing going on, that children are so social. They’re not antisocial, like Freud and Piaget thought, they’re not just egocentric, but they’re actually quite, quite social. And so kids with imaginary friends are just playing with their own social reality, their own ability to take another person’s point of view, even an invisible person.

So maybe that’s enough.

So again, the short answer is, no, they should not be afraid, and I think should delight in it.

In fact, our three-year-old grandchild, through Zoom the other day, introduced us to her chameleon, and I thought it was going to be just another stuffed animal. They have tons of those. And she went up to the camera, and she went like this [holding up ‘empty’ hands to the screen] : “Here’s my chameleon.” I go, “Oh,” and then she goes, “It’s camouflaged.”

Oh, man. That’s great. So to me, that’s, that’s like a novelist writing a great story, right?

Erin Reibel 06:35

I love your comparison of that story and having parents sort of enjoy the story of these invisible companions. As we think about spirituality, what purpose, what spiritual purpose, do imaginary companions have?

Brad Wigger 06:51

Um, I think it’s connected to what I was saying about how social children are. I think children in these, again, going back to imaginary friends, they’re practicing relationship. They’re practicing points of view. They’re practicing how to be with other people.

And I think that’s a spiritual discipline right there. To take it seriously, that it can be done with stuffed animals and all kinds of toys, or no toys at all. There are ways of doing that.

Or stories – I think children’s books are great at helping children understand other people and how other people think. So I think it serves that purpose.

But for me, I’d say the bottom line with it is that the children are, the phenomenon shows that children are capable of very meaningful relationships with other beings that you cannot even see.

Again, part of the developmental theories of the last century, we’re talking about how concrete children are, and children can be very literal and concrete because they haven’t learned that this word means something else as well. But they’re not just concrete.

They can – the implication for religious education, which is where Karen-Marie and I both work in that field – is that children really can appreciate the things that we say about God, even though they can’t see God, but they can still develop a meaningful and even powerful relationship with God, or with, you know, if you come from a tradition with angels or saints, that kind of thing as well.

So I think children – in some ways, I’ve been inspired because, if anything, I think adults are more concrete. And they’ve, the children I’ve talked to, have just opened my imagination up for a more fluid relationship with things I cannot see.

Karen-Marie Yust 09:21

Well, Brad, thank you so much for taking some time to talk with us today. And listeners, we have down in our Related Resources section an excerpt from Brad’s book, Invisible Companions. So I hope you’ll take a look and learn more about this fascinating subject and the ways that social scientists and philosophers are thinking about this differently than, as Dr. Wigger pointed out, just 20 years ago. Thanks again, Brad.

Brad Wigger 09:51

Yes, glad to be with you.




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