Some days my fraternal twin boys compete with each other about everything from whose bowl of ice cream is bigger to who’s taller. It’s no wonder since throughout their lives friends and family have compared them to each other (even though they’re nothing alike in personality or appearance). And although comparing twins may seem innocent or even insightful, it’s the leading cause of rivalry as they ultimately turn their comparisons to each other.
Pamela Tipton says everyone compares her 18-month-old fraternal twin girls. “What I really hate is when someone says that Abigail is the mean one and Caitlin is the good one,” says the Evansville, Tenn. mom. “I usually try to brush it off jokingly and say something like she isn’t mean, just more outgoing.”
“When my girls were young, relatives used to compare their weight,” says Nancy Firment of her identical twins, Kelly and Kimberly, now in their 30s. “They were always thin, but one usually weighed a few pounds more than the other.”
Concerned that a debate about her daughters’ weight was destructive to their self-esteem and relationship, the Northridge, Calif. mom took action—whenever a family member brought it up, Firment immediately diverted the conversation. When her twins left the room, however, she politely laid down the law explaining the subject was off limits. “There was nothing delicate that I could do,” Firment says. “People just don’t realize the damaging things they say to kids.”
Marian Borden, author of The Baffled Parent’s Guide to Sibling Rivalry agrees with Firment’s direct approach. “The problem when people compare twins to one another is that they’re making the assumption that one twin’s development is the norm and the other twin is not meeting that norm, and therefore something is wrong.”
Deflecting the conversation is a good strategy, says Borden, but talking with your kids helps, too. “When comparisons start at a family gathering, take your twins aside and say ‘Aunt Jenny’s just being silly,’ and remind them that everyone develops at a different rate,” she says. “Then explain that we don’t want to hurt Aunt Jenny’s feelings in front of everyone by telling her to stop.”
Although Heather Anderson’s six-month-old identical twin boys, Andrew and David, are too young for such a conversation, her other three children, Jonny (9), Josh (5), and Rose (2), are not. She frequently talks to them about the constant comparisons that people make about her twins from their size to their personalities, and explains how hurtful that can be. “I fear that if my older children hear the same comparisons too many times, it will reflect on their relationship with the twins,” says the Coudersport, Penn. mom.
If Anderson does ask a friend to stop comparing her twins, she does so in direct earshot of her children. “I want my kids to see that I practice what I preach,” she stresses. “That it’s not just something they shouldn’t do but also others should know and remember as well.”
Stopping Twin Comparisons at Home
Comparisons by outsiders are inevitable. (Strangers in the supermarket, for instance, often ask my boys who is smarter or which one is the “bad” twin.) Parents, on the other hand, can eliminate the practice all together.
“We compare our children with the best intentions,” says Adele Faber, author of Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too. “Even though we consciously know better, the temptation is too powerful. Yet any time you view a child through the prisms of another child you diminish them both.”
Sometimes, Faber explains, parents use a favorable comparison such as, “You’re such a good reader, even better than your twin brother,” as a way of giving one child a needed boost. Yet the child quickly realizes that it’s at the expense of his cotwin, and to continue getting praise he has a vested interest in reading better than him. Thus a rivalry is set in motion.
On the other hand, a parent may use an unfavorable comparison out of frustration in wanting to goad one child into behaving better. A comment like, “Why can’t you keep your room neat like your twin sister?” is also damaging as the messier twin then sees herself as inadequate.
A better approach, Faber points out, is to describe what you like (“You’re reading so well!”) or what you expect (“I know you’re in a rush, but you need to clean your room before you go outside.”) without making any references to a cotwin. And if one of your multiples is prone to getting her feelings easily hurt, try to keep your praises of her sibling as private, one-on-one moments.
For years, 15-year-old fraternal twin Shaye Kwiecinski of Stony Point, New Jersey, struggled in school due to a learning disability brought on by her premature birth. “Shaye had to work a lot harder in school than Caitlyn,” says their mom, Nancy Kwiecinski. “So when Shaye came home with an 80 on a test, I’d go crazy congratulating her since I knew how hard she struggled to get that grade.”
Yet all of this encouragement toward Shaye was secretly upsetting cotwin Caitlyn. Always a good student, Caitlyn felt her mom didn’t praised her nearly as much. “She’d get hurt thinking I wasn’t as proud,” says Kwiecinski. “I didn’t realize it. I just thought she knew she was doing well in school.”
Now Kwiecinski makes a point of periodically pulling each girl aside separately to privately praise her for a job well done.
Becoming a Supportive Family
Yet being part of a family also means showing support and encouragement for one another, doesn’t it? So how do you nurture the twin bond without creating a rivalry in the process?
Kim Clayton of Monroe, New Jersey creates situations that let her three-year-old boy/girl twins, Maxwell and Emily, help each other daily making each child feel good in the process. When one child is crying and the other offers hugs, for instance, Clayton encourages the consoler with lots of positive reinforcement. “Or if I give two snacks to one child,” she explains, “then I tell him or her to give one to the other.” This, she feels, teaches each child the joy of sharing. “I try to praise every time I see them making an effort in helping each other or taking turns,” she says.
“It’s hard for twins when one gets an award and the other doesn’t,” notes Gina Walker, mother of eight-year-old fraternal boys, Chase and Weston. But as parents, says the La Crescenta, Calif. mom, it’s our job to help our kids understand the strengths in each other. “I explain to my kids all the time that they need to show pride in each other, compliment each other,” she says. “I remind them that don’t have to be the same.”
Her motherly wisdom is paying off. Her boys encourage each other daily. “It’s amazing when I hear them say, ‘that was really good,’ to each other,” she adds.
Make family pride a family ritual. During meal times, for instance, ask each of your twins what the other did during the day that was appreciated or special, or hold a “three cheers” ceremony for anyone who did something inspirational that day. It may take a little practice but soon your twins will learn to look more at the positive attributes in each other rather than just the negative.
Nix the Birth Order in Twins
Another trick is to de-emphasize birth order, says Meri Wallace, director of the Heights Center for Adult and Child Development in Brooklyn, New York and author of Birth Order Blues: How Parents Can Help their Children Meet the Challenges of their Birth Order. “If you only have a set of twins, the one who’s born two minutes earlier often becomes the older sibling in the home,” notes Wallace. “And if you always refer to him as the ‘older child,’ he can laud it over the younger one which then creates a tremendous rivalry.”
Wallace suggests mixing things—don’t introduce them or even sign a family card according to who showed up first. From setting the dinner table to singing Happy Birthday, deliberately change the order each time. “Don’t relate to the oldest as the oldest,” she adds. “Make sure you give each twin, no matter what the situation, the opportunity to go first.”
And finally, spend time alone with each twin separately, stresses Borden. Multiples especially need to feel that you enjoy each one’s company independently. “They’re not a unit,” she says. “They’re distinct individuals with individual needs. And they want to know that you are trying to meet those needs.”
When a child feels secure with your love and attention, competition between twins quickly becomes a tie game.
Just a Friendly Competition?
Many twins and triplets are naturally drawn to the same sports (just look at identical twins and Olympic gymnasts, Paul and Morgan Hamm or tennis doubles partners, Bob and Mike Bryan). And while many siblings competing in the same activity often motive each other, some become bitter rivals. So how can you tell when your twins have crossed over the line from supporter to adversary?
“If you see one twin’s confidence ebbing, when he feels he can never win, he’s always the loser, or when he’s constantly comparing his accomplishments to his co-twin’s achievements, that’s when parents need to step in,” says Marian Borden.
Keep an ongoing dialogue with your kids emphasizing that there’s always room for two, and it’s not just who can jump higher or run faster. It doesn’t have to be an ‘I win, you lose’ situation—both can be winners. There’s value in every accomplishment, regardless of how large or small.
“If parents give more support for the process as opposed to the achievement,” adds Adele Faber, “children are much safer.”