The imaginary friend, parenting experts tell us, is a part of completely normal and generally harmless social development, as children begin to test their boundaries. In fact, we occasionally and lovingly still refer to one of my kid’s imaginary friends as a dear and fond family friend who just doesn’t seem to come to visit anymore.
A recent social development in my daughter’s life has me a little worried however, as we all know that imaginary friends in the twenty-first century are no longer as innocent. I have strong suspicions that a friend of hers (of similar age) has created an online identity (email address and MSN profile) who is ‘talking’ regularly to my daughter on line. Apparently, “Justin” has a crush on my daughter and they ‘talk’ on line about their lives, their families, their activities and the other stimulating interests of 10-year olds. It’s been going on now for several months, though she has never actually met Justin. Justin has a solid background: he’s a friend of a friend; he goes to a francophone school outside our neighbourhood, lives in a neighbouring community and has 2 siblings. My first clue that this might be a hoax was his listing his AAA hockey as an activity (there is no such thing as Atom-age AAA hockey in our area) and his sporting a dress shirt and tie in his profile picture (tooHollywood, IMHO, not that anyone is asking). At first I was unperturbed, until one day she’d evidently planned to meet him at the park. He never showed and there was a flurry of emails and internet activity back and forth over this and subsequent no-shows. A pattern was developing, including some amount of secrecy and deception on my daughter’s part and this whole situation has me feeling more than a little Barbara-Coloroso-jellyfish-parent.
I am not a complete idiot and I know full well that online relationships pose a real and serious danger. Heck, even my favourite Sesame Street character, Snuffaluffagus (whom I named a pet cat after!), had to eventually be revealed as Big Bird’s real friend after the Children’s Television Workshop suggested that this Snuffy plot would scare kids out of telling “fantasy” stories to their parents. So I gently broached the subject with my daughter one evening, and mentioned that I thought that just maybe “Justin” wasn’t real. After a tirade of epic proportions (not the first, not the last), it was obvious that despite my doubting his existence, “Justin” has become a ‘real’ friend to my daughter and she simply cannot accept that a good friend of hers would be so dishonest. I also suspect the confirmation would be a crushing disappointment. So this imaginary friend is, unmistakably, not so innocent. I’ve begun to introduce some not-so-innocent internet ‘chat’ scenarios and outcomes with my daughter, but am questioning further steps. Should I work towards exposing this charade? Should I call this friend’s parents? Both my daughter and her friend would no doubt view this as nothing short of outright betrayal. Should I continue my current path of arms-length observation and guidance? What if I am wrong?
What is required of me is ensuring her safety and security while allowing her a certain degree of independence and trust to ensure her confidence and resilience.
Sigh… to be a parent….