My teenage, fraternal twin sons have been in separate classes for many years and have different interests and personalities. Yet they still hang with the same friends, eat lunch together at school every day, and share a bedroom at home. Although I marvel at their close bond and deep friendship, I also can’t help but worry that all this twin togetherness may adversely affect them in the future. When they become adults and part ways, each living his life as a “singleton,” for instance, will they be independent, self-assured men or will they rely too much on one another for advice, support, and approval?
Part of the problem is that like many twins my boys lack time alone, separateness, and just plain privacy. “Twins lack privacy because they’re born into a situation where they are within their twinship nearly all the time,” says Joan Friedman, Ph.D., author of Emotionally Healthy Twins: A New Philosophy for Parenting Two Unique Children. “Even before they’re born, there’s a lack of privacy because they’re sharing the womb.”
Whether you’re a singleton or a twin, everyone needs time to himself beginning in early childhood. When young twins have a chance to discover life on their own without the interruption of a cotwin, they’re free to get a sense of themselves within the context of other children, an important step to developing emotional autonomy. It’s during separation, for instance, that twins are able to build a positive self-concept. They learn self-motivation, too. Plus, studies have shown that alone time—those private moments away from everyone—increases one’s ability to concentrate, a great skill to have in the classroom. But, more importantly, if twins successfully individuate on their own when they’re young, once adolescence and the second phase of autonomy begins, it will be a lot calmer for all. For it’s during the preteen and teen years that children slowly break away from their parents as they mature into adults, able to make decisions on their own. Those with a healthy sense of self won’t have the added struggle of separating from their co-twins as well.
The Twin Mythology
Friedman, an identical twin herself as well as the mother to 19-year-old fraternal twin boys, notes that some people view twin separation as unhealthy, as if it’s something that’s going to interfere with the twin relationship. “Twinship, on a whole, is so idealized,” she says. “If you’re not a twin, it’s easy to project that all twins love each other, that they’re best friends, and that they need each other. So the idea of twin privacy, separateness, and individuation can shock some people.”
In fact, when I interviewed one mom whose 15-year-old identical twin daughters still do everything together, she begged me (yes, really) not to write this article. She believes that some twins never need separation. Yet Deb Daniels of Hartford, Conn. and mother to five-year-old twins, Stephen and Joy, sees it differently. “They’re twins and they will always share a special bond, but they’re individuals first and foremost.”
Most parents are on the right track in helping their twins grow and develop. “I’ve always strived since the day they were born to treat them as individuals, not as twins,” says Juliann Baker of her 11-year-old fraternal twin girls, Abigail and Natalie. This Thomaston, Conn. mom laid the groundwork early by encouraging her daughters and their younger brother to pursue separate activities that each enjoyed. Although Baker quickly found out that her good intentions were turning her into a taxi driver as she motored all over town to various sport fields, her strategy showed her kids that each was unique and special.
Sara Boretz of Upland, Calif. celebrates her 15-year-old identical twins daughters’ differences. “Each has carved out her own niche,” she notes. Elise, for instance, is into her music and loves the precision of the marching band, while Suzanne enjoys drama and visual arts. Both girls spend plenty of time apart with their various activities but Boretz sees this as a positive. “They really do get along amazingly well and I think a lot of it is because they’re often apart for long periods of time.”
Begin Separation When Twins are Young
Cheryl Lage, author of Twinspiration: Real-Life Advice From Pregnancy Through the First Year (for Parents of Twins and Multiples)and mother to seven-year-old twins, Darren and Sarah, says her daughter began asking for “space” at age two! “We’d offer encouragement and support by suggesting another activity for the other, non-space needing twin,” she says. “For instance, we’d say, ‘Why don’t you come over here and read to me while your sister does her artwork?’ We’ve found this to be very effective.”
But it’s not unusual for toddler twins to want to spend every waking minute together and it can be difficult to separate the pair.
Like most families with young twins, Christine Houston’s six-year-old fraternal twin boys, George and Max, share a close relationship. “I know this will change with age, but right now my twins are in the honeymoon phase and enjoy the intimacy,” says the Glen Ridge, New Jersey mom. “They’re very much synchronized and in tune with each other.”
Still, parents need to think about how they can gently prepare their twins for life as a singleton down the road. Furthermore, moms and dads shouldn’t rely solely on their twins asking for more separation and privacy, but instead parents should look for subtle signs that more individual space is needed.
Although Melissa Rocker’s four-year-old fraternal twin daughter is protective of her cotwin in their shared preschool classroom, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla. mom isn’t sure her kids are ready to make the leap to two different classrooms next year. “The teacher told me that when they were turn taking with the entire class and it was Michael’s turn to look around the room and locate things hidden with a specific letter, Madison kept helping him, but not helping anyone else when they had trouble,” she explains. “Obviously it would take a lot more than that example for me to absolutely be sure that they needed to be separated in school.”
According to Friedman, however, parents should be proactive as most twins wouldn’t think of saying they want to separate from a cotwin for fear it would hurt their sibling’s feelings. “Parents shouldn’t wait for their children to ask for separation. Parents should provide these things,” Friedman notes. Whether it’s a separate bedroom, classroom, or hobby, when your multiples demonstrate that they’re ready, Friedman says to go for it. “Parents need to think with some forethought that it’s their responsibility to set up boundaries. They have to stop thinking that it’s going to emanate from the twinship itself, because it’s not.”
Even before the birth of her fraternal triplets, Maureen Kinney of Cooper City, Fla. set the stage for three independent little people. First, she and her husband decided on vastly different names for their children and then gave each a separate bedroom painted and decorated to each child’s preferences and styles. “I think this has gone a long way in encouraging separateness,” Kinney says of her four-years-olds, Samantha, Toby, and Jordan. “Although they are still fiercely attached and emotionally tuned into one another, they present themselves as separate beings with different likes and dislikes.”
Obviously not everyone can offer their twins the luxury of separate bedrooms, but even carving out individual space within the same room is step in the right direction. Give each child a wall to decorate, for instance, or his own personal bookcase where he can display special trophies, vacation souvenirs, or just his favorite stories.
In our house, I try to make up for the lack of an extra bedroom in other ways. For instance, we now allow one twin to stay home alone while the rest of us go on a family hike on weekends. For those few hours, one or the other gets the full reign of an empty house to do as he pleases.
Offering time alone with just one parent or an available relative is another great way to give each child some space away from a co-twin, too. Deb Daniels’ twins and older singleton daughter regularly take turns sleeping over at Grandma’s house. “We also try to have regular one-on-one time with each of them,” she says. “We also do the “just the girls” or “just the guys” (Dad and Stephen) thing.”
There’s no question that in their quest for individuation, boy-girl twins have it a bit easier than same-sex twins. “Boy-girl twins can separate naturally as they get older because they have many opportunities to gravitate toward gender-specific activities,” Friedman says. Furthermore, she adds, many opposite-gender twins don’t have the same societal pressure to be “best friends.”
Alicia Gutierrez describes her 14-year-old twins, Cristina and Nicolas, as “very tight,” but the Miami, Fla. mom also says at this age, they’re very independent of each other, too. “They have separated themselves by having different interests and friends,” she notes. These days she tries instead to find ways in which they can spend more time together! “When Nick is going to the movies with some friends, for instance, I ask him to ask his sister to go. Sometimes she goes, and other times she doesn’t.”
Lucia Fernandez of Alta Loma, Calif. agrees. “It’s easier for boy-girl twins to separate as they get older,” she says of her 16-year-old twins, Francesca and Dallas. “They’re naturally involved in separate activities because of their interests.”
It’s All in Your Attitude
Offering individual space and encouraging separate activities are a few concrete ways that parents can help their twins cultivate autonomy. It’s those small, tolerable doses of separation, Friedman stresses, that will help your twins get to know themselves outsides of their twinship. “Your overall goal is to help them individuate,” she says. “All those little experiences throughout their lives really prepare them for when they have to deal with the challenges of adolescence.”