Michelle’s Imaginary Playmates

MY ARTICLE published in The Star, on this date, nine years ago.

The Star, 23 October 2003

“MUMMY, meet my friend, Mee Ho.” My 32-month old daughter Michelle, said to me one day in March. I was pleased my daughter has learnt the courtesy of introducing me to her friends.

I looked around. There was no one but the two of us in our living room.

“Hello, Mee Ho.” I extended my hand, unsure where to extend it to.

“He’s here,” she offered, pointing to her left.

“Hello, Mee Ho, nice to meet you,” I played along. “How old is Mee Ho?” I wondered aloud.

“Five,” my daughter said while animatedly sticking out her palm.

“Why is he here?” I was curious.

“To play,” came her short reply.

“Where is his mummy?” I probed.

“At work,” another curt reply.

“Where does Mee Ho stay?” I asked.

“Cyberjaya,” she replied.

Meet Mee Ho, Michelle’s invisible friend. He is here to stay. At least he has been a permanent feature in our home since then. Mee Ho follows my daughter around, plays with her, goes home occasionally but always returns, bows to her and doesn’t retaliate when she scolds him.

Overall, Mee Ho has been a dream buddy. Michelle reciprocates by treating him to her meals, telling him stories, sharing her toys and even inviting him along when we go out, making sure he has a spot at the back of the car.

Experts say that more than half of the children between the ages of two-and-a-half and six create imaginary friends. It is a normal phase in a child’s development.

Parenting website BabyCenter.com says a toddler with imaginary friends is not only normal but also very creative. Another website Keepkidshealthy.com highlights that “it is more common in first born or only children, especially if they have a creative imagination. An imaginary friend can help provide companionship, allow her to be in charge of and control someone, and allow her to experience many of the good and bad things that she dreams about.” Similarly, Gale Encyclopedia of Childhood and Adolescence offers that “the imaginary playmate relationship nurtures the child’s imaginary and can provide practice of social skills”.

So I wasn’t worried when Michelle brought five more “friends” home in May. My friend from Singapore had sent her a VCD of Australian teenage pop group Hi-5. By her third birthday in July, Kathleen, Kellie, Charlie, Tim and Nathan had become her new friends. She watches them on Astro daily and occasionally on the VCD. When the TV is turned off, she continues to sing and dance with them.

A quick check amongst my friends here revealed that none of their children have imaginary friends, except one who resides in the United States. A mother of two, Huei Ling has this to offer about her first-born, a three-year old girl.

“Zoie’s really shy and reserved. When she is with other kids, she is really quiet and does not talk much. But once she gets home, Tiny and Bigger become her friends. Tiny is her best friend. Sometimes I have five Tinys in the house. I had to feed yoghurt to six kids!”

Signs of loneliness, you think? Highly possible in Michelle’s case. She is an only child. But I take comfort that she is able to deal with her “loneliness” quite creatively, for our living room is turned into a make-believe world daily. It could be a palace one day, a supermarket the next, or a kitchen, a forest, a stage, etc. and her friends are always around, sometimes one, sometimes all.

Of the six, Mee Ho is still the favourite. I often wonder how Mee Ho came into being. My daughter hasn’t gone to school yet, so she couldn’t possible know of any Mee Ho from school. Neither is there any child in the neighbourhood named as such. It doesn’t sound anywhere close to the names of her eight cousins, whom she often plays with. Once I asked how Mee Ho looked like, I was secretly afraid what her answer would be. My fear was laid to rest when her brief description revealed a “regular boy”.

As to where she derived Cyberjaya from, I could only deduce that that weekend in March, we took her for a meal there and the place must have stuck in her mind.

A parenting expert was once quoted on BBC’s homepage that having imaginary friends do not pose long-term harm but cautions that it is “terribly useful to have someone to blame when things go wrong!”

Huei Ling is quick to agree that Zoie’s friends Tiny and Bigger are “nothing but partners in crime”. She says, “If Zoie decides that she wants to test us or she knows that she had done something wrong… oh no, Zoie didn’t do it, Tiny or Bigger did.”

Thankfully Michelle hasn’t reached the stage of blaming her friends for any of her misdeed, like spilled water, torn pages of a book or broken toys. Far from that, her imaginary friends have been a source of inspiration. She says she’d like to be able to dance and sing like them. She creates stories with them in it. She builds things with her friends in mind.

Just as my daughter finds a good friend especially in Mee Ho, I quickly made him a convenient parenting “tool”. When Michelle refuses to drink up her milk, I’d tell her Mee Ho wouldn’t waste good food. When she gets upset writing the alphabets, I’d tell her Mee Ho wouldn’t throw a tantrum over that. When she refuses to go to sleep, I’d tell her that Mee Ho has long gone to bed. Neither of us needs psychiatric treatment. I’m fully aware of what I am doing and so does she. “Pretend only,” she occasionally tells the both of us.

Someone shared on an internet open forum that “it is my understanding that an imaginary friend is a sign of being gifted.”

Well, I don’t know about the gifted bit. Michelle hasn’t painted any Sunflower or read the Harry Potter series. No sign of her taking after Shirley Temple’s footsteps either.

For now, I am just glad she has someone to play with, while I get some of my chores done, uninterrupted. Though not always.

On numerous occasions, Mee Ho proved to be a nuisance. I wasn’t allowed to turn off the TV even after her favourite show ended because “Mee Ho is still watching”. Once I was ironing and my daughter insisted that I played with them. With a heap of shirts and a scouring 120 degrees heat, I was in no mood to entertain my daughter, what more an invisible kid. What I had was a burning desire to exterminate him.

However, I know it’s a matter of time before Mee Ho goes away on his own accord. Michelle will outgrow her imaginary friends, as she did her spring cot and Barney (though up till eight months ago, I was convinced whoever marries her would have to embrace Barney as well).

I also know that when Mee Ho leaves, I will surely miss him.

Postscript:

1)  Michelle indeed outgrew Mee Ho, she left him behind when we packed and left for Moscow… Mee Ho wouldn’t like the cold there anyway.

2)  Michelle has since found a REAL playmate in her little sister.

3)  Today, Michelle appears a “regular gal” – her creativity still intact, a little reserved but otherwise “regular” with interests in school, books, Taylor Swift and guitar-playing. She has since read three Harry Potter titles.

4)  I still think of Mee Ho, occassionally 🙂

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