When Twins Differ in Abilities


When my fraternal twin boys were in the second grade, I noticed that one son was having trouble learning to read. When we snuggled together for our nightly story, each taking a turn reading a page out loud, one read his passage quickly and flawlessly while the other struggled to decode the words on the page in front of him. “The Struggler” became frustrated easily, too, especially when his cotwin would try to help him sound out the words. During a teacher-parent conference later that year, his teacher confirmed our suspicions. The Struggler was reading more than two grade levels below the rest of his class.

For us, there were two serious issues at play. First, we needed to assess why The Struggler was having problems reading and then get him the help he needed. Second, and we felt equally important, we needed to make sure that it wouldn’t affect the boys’ relationship. We wanted his cotwin to be able to take pride in his ability to read without fear that he would hurt his brother’s feelings. Conversely, we didn’t want our son who was struggling to feel less-than his cotwin or resent him for how easily reading came to him.

We were about to traverse a very slippery slope indeed.

Twin Comparisons Can HurtIdentical twins hugging.

To the outside world, twins may seem the same (or at least very similar). Yet parents of twins know all too well that their children come into this world as very different little beings. “Just like any siblings, twins have their own personalities, interests and abilities, so differences between them are quite common. And the older they get, the more these unique characteristics become apparent,” explained Susan Heim, author of It’s Twins!, and the mother of four sons including four-year-old fraternal twin boys. “Unfortunately, this can be more of a problem for twins than it is for other siblings as people have a tendency to compare twins more or expect them to be exactly the same.”

These differences are even more apparent to parents of fraternal twins since genetically they’re no more alike than any two siblings born years apart. Yet fraternal twins are different from singletons of different ages. Twins grow up together, not only sharing a birthday but also reaching many developmental and physical milestones simultaneously giving the illusion to many that they are in fact the same. So when twins differ in their abilities, be it in school or playing sports, it’s more apparent to everyone, even the twins themselves.

Parents whose twins are at opposite ends of the academic or sports spectrum, however, should fight the urge to compare the two, especially in their presence. Not only can open comparisons hurt the less-performing twin’s self-esteem but it can set up the pair for unhealthy competition. (“Mom says I’m a better speller than you!” “Oh, yeh? Well, Dad told me I’m a better ball player!”) Instead try to view each child’s accomplishments and strengths individually. Teach them to celebrate their differences rather than competing over them. And while it’s fine to praise the more-accomplished twin in front of his co-twin, be cognizant of when your compliments are hurting the less-able twin’s self image and instead offer congratulations for a job well done in private.

“We make a sincere effort to not diminish the achievements of the ‘excelling’ twin while continuing to encourage the endeavors of the ‘practicing-and-maybe-just-simply-enjoying’ twin,” explained Cheryl Lage, author of Twinspiration: Real-Life Advice From Pregnancy Through the First Year (for Parents of Twins and Multiples), and mother to six-year-old boy-girl twins. Although her son is a stronger reader, her daughter is an exceptional artist. Lage uses words of praise with both regardless of whose performance is outstanding. “We gravitate towards compliments and positive reinforcements such as ‘Sarah you did such a great job on that poster!’ and ‘Darren your color choices are so pretty!’ Or, ‘Darren you read that whole book by yourself. Great job!’ and ‘Sarah you figured out that word by sounding it out, and it was a long one!’” In doing so, Lage takes the focus off of succeeding or “winning” and instead concentrates on effort.

Furthermore, Lage stresses to her children that everyone has unique talents. “We make a point to include our tales of successes and lesser performances,” said Lage. “Mommy was a good artist but I was always last in the 600 yard dash. I always tried to improve and do my best, and I did get better. Whether I won or not wasn’t as important as my efforts.” Parents can take it a step further and try to help their struggling twin find an area all his own in which to shine separate from his co-twin. Try persuading your struggling twin to take music or art lessons, for example, or enroll her in martial arts, a sport that builds self-confidence and pro-social behavior. When a child is allowed to “own” an activity separate from a co-twin, the pride she feels often spills over in other areas of her life. Once out from under the shadow of a co-twin, she may make a turn around improving in other areas where she once struggled.

Consider Your Twins’ Classroom Placement

Nothing causes more stress for families with multiples when there’s a gap in academic achievement between twins. Still, if you think that one twin is struggling in school, it may or may not mean that there’s a problem. “It may just be a sign that a different approach is needed,” Heim said. She recommends looking at classroom placement first to see if that is having an effect on performance. “If your twins are in the same classroom and one is struggling, you might want to consider placing them in different classes. In this way, teachers and children are less likely to compare them. And your twins are less likely to compare themselves with each other. On the other hand, if your twins are very bonded and have been placed in separate classrooms, one may be doing poorly because she’s separated from her twin. In this case, you may need to speak with the administration to see if they’ll allow them to share a classroom again.”

Karen Calvert, a first-grade teacher from Livonia, Mich., has seen this at work first hand. “When twins are together, the one who is struggling is dependent on the other too much. Separating them allows each the chance to develop their own talents, and allows the teacher to assess the needs of each child.” Furthermore, Calvert explains, the more-able twin gets a break as well. “By separating them, the more-able twin is also taken out of the role of caregiver for a few hours of the day and allowed to develop her own talents and not feel so responsible for helping her sibling. The twin that struggles more can learn to rely on herself, too, and be less dependent upon her twin.”

Next, Heim suggests conferencing with your struggling twin’s teacher to see if learning style plays a role. “Perhaps the struggling twin is more of a visual learner and could benefit from the use of flashcards at home or other techniques that complement visual learning,” Heim said. Sometimes a change in where the child sits in the classroom may have an impact, too. If she can’t see the board clearly or hear the teacher, she’s more apt to tune out and lose focus.

Still, a child who is significantly lagging behind his peers scholastically should be formally tested to determine if there is in fact a learning problem. The sooner he’s assessed and then given the professional help he needs, the better chance of remediation. “Early intervention is important if a child is struggling,” added Heim. “You don’t want her to get so frustrated with school that she simply gives up.”

However, it’s important for parents not to take their child’s struggles personally. “Sometimes the biggest delay in getting help for the struggling twin is denial by the parents,” Calvert explained. “They take a few years to admit the problem, which delays some of the interventions that could have been offered sooner.”

Lending Support and Love to the Struggling Twin

Finding what works for your struggling twin is a top priority but it shouldn’t be the sole focus of your family life. While getting the help he needs is paramount, celebrating his strengths whatever they may be is equally important.

In our situation, testing revealed that my Struggler had an auditory processing disorder. Through the help of a tutor and a few changes within the classroom setting and at home, my Struggler, now in sixth grade, reads at a tenth grade level.

And that makes us all very proud.

Help Begins at Home

When a child struggles academically or has a hard time developing his gross motor skills making him hesitant to join a sports team, family support can make a huge difference. Here are some tips to help your twins at home.

  • Offer privacy. Find a secluded spot within the home for each child to study on his own away from the prying eyes of a co-twin. In our house, we separated the boys for their nightly reading, too. This way The Struggler could take his time getting extra help in sounding out words and phrases.
  • Make use of the Internet and computer games. These days there are a host of educational and fun software to help students falling behind on reading and math skills. (We used a computer program called Earobics: Sound Foundations for Reading & Spelling.)
  • Get game friendly. Next time you hit the road to visit Grandma’s house, take along some flashcards—sight words and arithmetic—for the long ride. (Mad Libs, a great word game, is a solid choice as well.) Pull out the Scrabble board on a Friday night, and let the kids have 10 letter tiles instead of the usual seven, or play any other game that involves reading or math.
  • Concentrate on building sport skills. Play a game of catch after dinner or hit the batting cages on a Saturday afternoon. When kids practice sports within a loving, non-judgmental environment it not only gives them confidence but builds their competence as well.
  • Be a supportive family. Praise your kids when they compliment each other’s successes. Remind them that they’re not adversaries but teammates.

A copy of the book Double Duty.