Identical twins are celebrated in society for their similarities, as evidenced by the number of television commercials using twins to sell their products and the success of twin-based shows and movies. But there is another side to twins that should be embraced: their individuality.
Parents expecting twins have a difficult, but wonderful, task ahead of them. They are responsible for recognizing and encouraging each child’s individuality while also nurturing the special bond they share.
Susan Kohl, mother of twins and author of Twin Stories: Their Mysterious and Unique Bond (Wildcat Canyon Press, 2001), stresses the importance of helping twins develop their own identities. “Even though the egg splits and they have much of the same genetic makeup, they really are two separate people,” she says. “It’s important to nurture their individuality so they could become self-sufficient, successful adults.”
Kim Brown, a mother of twins from Indiana, agrees. “The children need to know that they are not two halves of a whole, but that each one is a complete individual,” she says.
“This is not always easy,” says Karen Kerkhoff Gromada, author of Keys to Parenting Multiples (Barrons Educational Series, 2001) and Mothering Multiples (La Leche League Intl, 1999). “It often takes longer for a mother to bond with her twins because she has to fall in love with two people at once.”
She adds that when you’re dealing with two babies who need constant care and attention – often at the same time – you may be too busy to get to know them as individuals. Many parents become attached to the unit. However, as things settle down and you find more time to interact with each child separately, the bonds form. “It’s a crucial responsibility of parents of twins to get to know each child separately,” she says. “Once you form the attachments, their individuality becomes clear.”
One in a Million
Even though your children look alike and may have many behavioral similarities, there are a number of things you can do, right from the start, to help them see themselves as unique and special individuals.
Gromada encourages new and expecting parents to seriously consider whether they want their children to focus more on their independence or their twinship. “With every decision you make, you either advance their individuality or their twin unit,” she says. “If you sacrifice the individual for the whole, the children may become confused about their identity.” She adds that there’s not much opportunity for the “unit” in adult society.
However, the twin bond is so strong and special, it should not be ignored. Nancy L. Segal, professor of developmental psychology at California State University-Fullerton, and author of Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior (Plume, 2000), stresses the need for balance. “Few people would tell a married couple that they shouldn’t be so much of a unit,” she says. “The same is true with twins.”
One of the first ways parents could encourage individuality in their twins is by the names they select. “Choosing rhyming or similar names may send the message that the children are parts of a whole rather than whole individuals,” says Gromada. Segal agrees, adding that dissimilar names also cause less confusion.
Brown recalls one of her first steps in treating her sons as individuals. “When we came home from the hospital, I made up a simple song for each of the boys with his own name in it,” she says. “I only sang Ohis’ song to him.” She adds that this also helped the boys learn their names quickly.
Another way to encourage individuality is to spend time alone with each child every day. Two of the most powerful bonding times are during meals and baths. The primary caregiver should be involved with these activities as often as possible.
It is also important for parents to take pictures of each of the children separately. All children like to see pictures of themselves when they were babies, and it will reinforce their unique identities if they see pictures of one without the other. “To make it easier on yourself later, identify who’s in the picture on the back as soon as they are developed,” says Brown.
As the infants grow into toddlers, helping them find a sense of self becomes even more important. It is at this age that most children learn independence, a trait that should be encouraged in twins.
At this stage, children can choose their own clothes. Let them decide whether they want to dress alike or differently. In addition, you can offer outfits that are similar, but different. Overalls with different colored shirts or playsuits in stripes and solids give the children variation while continuing to celebrate the twin connection.
Also important at this stage is the use of each child’s name. Don’t refer to them as “the twins” – call them by their names. And when using their names, remember to use each one individually. Recounting an example from her book, Kohl says, “I interviewed a set of twins who told me that for the longest time they didn’t know their own names. They thought it was ‘Kevin and Keith’ because that’s what everyone called them.” Keep this in mind when summoning your children to dinner. Instead of always saying “Jenny and Beth, it’s time to eat,” call each one individually. These little things make a big difference.
Kohl also urges parents to get their twins playing with other children as early as possible. It’s easy for parents of twins to see the children as built-in playmates and therefore overlook the importance of socialization. But play dates and other social interactions are vital to a twin’s development as an individual. “This type of socialization increases their confidence to make friends and prepares them for their eventual separation,” she says.
Separation often occurs when the children enter school. Many school districts have policies requiring twins to be placed in different classrooms. Those without policies often encourage separation. It is a parent’s responsibility to decide if this separation would be beneficial to the children.
“Read your kids, not the book,” says Gromada. She says that many twins are very dependent on each other and would be better served in a classroom together. Segal recommends that schools and teachers treat every case as it arises. “Many times the children just need to see each other,” she says. “Placing them at different tables or in different groups within the class will help foster independence while providing the needed security.”
Another issue to consider with school-age children is their developing friendships. In many instances, one child may be invited somewhere without the other. This is a difficult issue for parents. “Although it’s tough, you need to let the invited child go without his sibling,” Brown says. “You’ll severely limit your children’s opportunities if you force people to invite both kids.”
Instead, you can do something special with the second child. Set up a play date of your own, or go somewhere she enjoys. Explain that sometimes one will be invited without the other, and that it’s OK. Reinforce the fact that they are separate people with different friends.
When faced with a twin-related decision, Gromada says, “Ask yourself, ‘If they were singletons born one year apart, how would I treat this issue?’ Then follow your answer. If parents take the time, the children will have a sense of individuality,” she says.
“Some parents repress individuality; many parents force it,” Brown says. “The best way is to let nature take its course.” Paying attention and responding appropriately to your children’s needs is the best way to help your twins develop their sense of self.
Kim Craft, a twin from California, agrees. “My sister and I are both strong and independent women because our parents celebrated not only our individuality, but also our special relationship with each other,” she says.
Which One Are You?
There are many people who come into a twin’s life who don’t have a strong connection with them. Teachers, coaches, babysitters, even extended family members may have difficulty telling the two apart.
Nancy Segal, professor of developmental psychology at California State University-Fullerton and author of Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior (Plume, 2000), offers these suggestions to help people differentiate between identical twins:
- Identify physical differences: If Laura has a dimple but her sister Kelsey does not, let people know. Alerting others to these physical traits will help them identify who is who.
- Color codes: If Ryan prefers the color red and Bob likes blue, try dressing them in color-coded outfits. Even the most distant relative could remember this mnemonic device.
- Different hairstyles: This is often easier for girls, as one could wear her hair down while the other wears pigtails. Or parents can use different colored barrettes for each child. For boys, it’s a bit more difficult, since both boys will look good in the same style. In this case, one child could use gel in his hair while the other remains natural.
- Identifiers: While playing sports, the children could wear different colored pads or bandanas, or they could wear their names on their shirts so coaches could identify them quickly from a distance. At other times, girls could wear different colors of fingernail polish or different jewelry. Boys could attach tie tacks of different colors to their collars or wear a small initial pin.
While these “cheater” methods help identify each child easily, the best way to differentiate between twins is by getting to know them. Spending as little as five minutes talking to them one on one will make a huge difference.