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Encouraging Individuality in Twins

  Reproduced with permission from Twin Services,
Parent Education Series 300: #310.

Many parents of new multiples wonder how their children will be able to develop individual identities when their early experiences and environment are so similar, especially if they look alike. Most parents have seen media accounts of adult twins who still live together and dress alike, who seem never to have become separate people with separate lives. These parents wonder what they can do to prevent this from happening to their children.

When parents call the TWINLINE with concerns about individuality, we assure them that individuation is not something that parents do to twins. Twins, triplets or more are individuals already, by virtue of the fact that they have physically separate bodies and brains. Families can either enhance or obscure their multiple-birth children's individuality, but they need not create it. That has been taken care of already. (Incidentally, parents report that fingernail polish on one twin's big toe helps them tell their babies apart.)

Parents sometimes tell us they feel guilty that in the chaotic and exhausting early months, they are unable to give each baby much individual attention. Again, we reassure them that every time they change a diaper, feed or talk to the babies, they are giving "individual attention." Each child experiences these simple acts with his or her own sensory equipment, storing them away in each one's personal memory bank as feedback from the external world.

For the first year or so, then, it is not necessary to be concerned about providing separate experiences or otherwise promoting "individuation" for twins. Parents have their hands full just attending to the physical care of their babies. But what about the period between 18 months and three years when children are forming concepts of their individual identity, and beginning the two-decade process of separating from their parents? Is there anything parents can do during this stage to increase their twins' ability to establish individuality and develop separate lives as adults? YES!

Here are some simple yet very helpful and important things parents and other family members can do to promote healthy identity formation in their multiples.

  •  Give them distinctly different names. If they do have very similar sounding names, you may want to use a nickname or middle name for one or both to lessen confusion.

  • Give them each their own clothes and avoid dressing twins alike on a regular basis past infancy. Few families can resist the adorable image of identically dressed babies, and there is no harm in this during the first year or two. However, since identical outfits emphasize the twin "unit," and make it harder for other people to tell them apart, you should refrain from dressing older twins alike. If they are given matching outfits, just don't use them both on the same day.

  •  Separate their clothes. You might even want to label them. Keep them in different drawers or sections of the closet so that the children know which belong to each when they start choosing their own clothes and dressing themselves. If your twins want to dress alike, don't prevent them. Just provide a varied wardrobe and casually remind them that other people may have trouble knowing which of them is which. Sometimes older identicals experimentally dress alike to force their friends to respond to their individual personalities instead of differences in their clothing. Twins who wear school uniforms report this benefit.

  •  Give them each their own toys. As a wise preschool teacher once said, "Children can't share until they've had." Before they can understand the concepts of sharing, taking turns and trading, they have to have some notion of ownership. If everything belongs to both of them together, it is harder for twins to think of themselves as separate people.

  •  Try to refer to each by names, not as "the twins," and make it easy for others to do so. When they start school, give them name tags, if necessary, or color-code their wardrobes so that teachers and other children know that "Jenny always wears something red and Sarah always wears something blue."

  • For birthdays, you might make two small cakes and sing "Happy Birthday" twice. Give them separate gifts and encourage family and friends to, also. Few things are more frustrating to young twins than being given one present to "share."

Separate Experiences

While trying to carry out the above suggestions (don't worry if you can't manage all of them all of the time), you may still be wondering if you should be providing separate experiences for your multiples as a way of helping them develop individuality. There may be some benefit in arranged separations, but they needn't be forced before the twins are ready to accept them. If providing outings for one at a time imposes a great financial or logistical hardship on the family, try something simpler, like a five minute special talk-time with each child every morning or at bedtime.

In some families, each parent takes one twin on brief separate outings at the same time. Sometimes it works for one parent to take one out while the other twin stays home with the other parent. Few young twins understand this, however. They think the one staying home is being deprived or punished. A single parent who has a close relative or friend whom the children know well and are comfortable with might ask this person to baby-sit one child at a time to provide each one with some special private time with the parent.

Short periods away from a co-twin give each twin the opportunity to interact directly with an adult or other children, without help, interference or competition from each other. Especially in situations where one twin is more verbal and assertive and routinely expresses needs for the quieter twin, separate times call on a shy child to learn to "speak for yourself." Such experiences can be helpful for the development of language and a sense of individual social competence. If arranging separate experiences for your toddlers is difficult for you or upsetting to the twins, don't do it. Physical separation is not what makes people individuals. The important thing is to establish individual relationships with each child, however you can work this out. Acknowledge each one's interests and achievements with smiles and praise, attend to their needs as presented. If they sense that you see them as two separate, different beings, they will learn to see themselves that way, too.

Separation in School

The subject of separate experiences and individuation inevitably leads to the issue of placement in school. It may seem logical from what we have said so far that twins are better off in separate classrooms. Indeed, many school administrators still follow a policy of routinely separating twins in kindergarten, regardless of parental wishes, in the mistaken belief that this will promote individuality and decrease behavior problems for the teacher. However, the fact is that all twin development research in the past twenty years plus the experiences of thousands of twin families support the opposite conclusion. Twins who are allowed to be together in preschool and as long as they want to be in the early elementary years seem to make a much better adjustment both academically and socially than those who are arbitrarily separated. Four and five year-olds are simply not ready to make the transition from home and parents to school and achieve separation from their lifelong companion simultaneously. Twins who are separated too soon become so anxious about each other's whereabouts and welfare that they can't concentrate on learning and socializing. Once the adjustment to school is accomplished, separation in later grades happens naturally and easily. We have found that the development of individuality in twins is delayed, not enhanced, by too early school separation.

Let Them Be Themselves

In their desire to promote individuality in their twins, parents may encourage or impose differences between the children which do not exist. Identical twins and even some fraternals may have very similar interests and abilities. They should not be deprived of the opportunity to pursue the same hobbies, sports or lessons if that's really what they are inclined to do. Try to support and respect each child's true inclinations as much as possible, however alike or different they may be.

It is important to realize that attitudes about the value of individuality vary widely across different cultures and that the United States is probably at the extreme in glorifying "rugged individualism." For example, African customs regarding twins celebrate and call attention to twinship in a variety of ways, and Black Americans often continue these traditions by dressing fraternal twins alike for many years and giving them similar names.

Twins are born into a uniquely close and complex relationship, more intimate, even, than marriage. They probably know more about how to conduct and maintain a long-term relationship than those of us who came into this world alone. On the other hand, the challenge of becoming an independent adult is more complicated for twins than for the rest of us. As we have discussed, parents can help the process along in subtle ways without violating the close bond between their children.   The information in this article is not a substitute for professional medical or psychological advice. Please consult with your health care advisor about specific questions or problems.

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The information in this article is not a substitute for professional medical or psychological advice. Please consult with your health care advisor about specific questions or problems.

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