"I Run Faster Than Him Because I Have Faster Shoes": Perceptions of Competence and Gender Role Stereotyping in Children's Imaginary Friends
Coetzee, Hilda, Shute, Rosalyn, Child Study Journal
This study aimed to replicate the findings of Harter and Chao (1992) of a gender difference in the competence of the imaginary friends created by children, and to examine their suggestion that this gender difference is due to children's understanding of gender role stereotypes. There were 61 children (20 boys and 41 girls) between the ages of 3 years and 7 years who participated. The gender difference was not replicated, as not only girls, but also boys, rated their imaginary friend as less competent than themselves. However, children's spontaneous comments were indicative of a gender difference in how children perceived this lower competence--in terms of nurturing (girls) or self-favoring social comparison (boys). Other gender differences in children's imaginary friends were also apparent. The relative competence of child and 'friend' was not related to how flexible children were in terms of gender-role stereotyping, and this adds to a growing body of evidence failing to demonstrate a link between children's gender stereotypes and their behavior.
The imaginary friend is a common phenomenon, appearing in 13% (Svendsen, 1934) to 31% (Manosevitz, Prentice & Wilson, 1973; Schaefer, 1969) of children. Imaginary friends are created by children between the ages of 2 1/2 to 9 years (Nagera, 1960; Somers & Yawkey, 1984), but especially during preschool years (Somers & Yawkey, 1984). Svendsen (1934) first defined the imaginary friend as:
an invisible character named and referred to with others in conversation or played with directly for a period of time, for at least a few months, having an air of reality for the child but no apparent objective basis. This excludes that kind of imaginative play where an apparent object is personified or where the child actually assumes the role of another person in his environment. (p. 998).
Various gender differences with regard to imaginary friends have been observed. For example, more girls than boys have imaginary friends (e.g., Meyer & Tuber, 1989; Taylor & Carlson, 1997) and boys exhibit more variability in the kinds of imaginary friends they create (Jalongo, 1983), including superheroes and animals (Singer & Singer, 1990). A study by Gleason, Sebanc and Hartup (2000) is unusual in making no reference to gender differences, while Bouldin and Pratt (2002) did not examine gender differences in a recent study that revealed no indication of emotional difficulties in children with imaginary companions.
In a study of the perceived competence of imaginary friends, Harter and Chao (1992) found that 70% of boys created imaginary friends who were more competent than themselves while 75% of girls created imaginary friends who were less competent than themselves. Taking a psychoanalytic perspective, Harter and Chao suggested that perhaps boys were creating an ego-ideal with whom they could identify, while the girls were creating a less competent friend whom they could nurture; in these different ways, it was proposed that boys and girls boosted their own sense of competence. Harter and Chao had not predicted this gender difference, and noted the need to replicate this finding. One aim of the present study was therefore to examine whether this observed gender difference in boys' and girls' imaginary friends could be replicated.
Harter and Chao (1992) speculated about the impact of children's sensitivity to gender role stereotypes on the type of imaginary friends created by boys compared to girls. The male figure is seen as strong, brave and powerful and boys create an imaginary friend that fulfils this stereotype, while the female role is generally perceived as protecting and nurturing, a stereotype, which the girls fulfill themselves. A second aim of the present study was to investigate empirically this suggestion that the relative competence of imaginary friends is related to children's understanding of gender roles. …