So I’ve been thinking lately about how I’m scheduled to speak on the hot-button topic of twins and classroom separation at the Southern California Mothers of Twins Clubs fall workshop. And although I truly do believe that parents should have the final say when it comes to the educational fate of their twins, I also believe that in 99 cases out of 100, parents should choose to separate them.
Whenever I attend conferences where parents of twins are present, the topic always turns towards the separation issue. I hear stories of parents fighting with school administrators trying to keep their duo together in class. Their accounts are heartbreaking. I try to offer advice. I tell them that there are no published research studies that show that twins who share a classroom are any worse for wear than those who don’t. Still, I find myself walking away thinking that instead of arguing with the school board, writing strongly worded letters and gathering documentation, most of these parents’ time would be better spent gradually weaning their young twins off one another, helping them to appreciate and ultimately enjoy their time without their cotwins.
The majority of twins who share a classroom do just fine being together. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find an expert in the field who would say otherwise. So if most twins do not have a problem individuating or developing autonomy when placed together, what’s my beef with it?
For more than a decade, parents have fought the good fight with the school system that for so long has arbitrarily separated their twins based on the assumption that it will help each child learn to individuate sooner. But now the pendulum has swung so far to the other side that many parents insist that their twins stay together during the early school years for fear that if they don’t it will harm the twin bond. Yet what many parents don’t realize is that the twin bond will not only survive classroom separation, often it will thrive because of it.
The studies that are out there have focused on the effects of classroom separation and twins’ internalizing (anxiety and depression) and externalizing (aggression) problems. But what about the long-term personal and social effects sharing a classroom has on twins? In other words, how do others (their classmates and teachers, for example) perceive and ultimately relate to the twins? This is important too as the answer will impact the twins for years to come.
Although most young twins enjoy sharing the same classroom with their cotwins, the practice slowly creates impediments for the twins, many that I’ve seen first hand not only with my own twins but with other multiples with whom I’ve come into contact. Taken individually, these obstacles seem harmless but they can be insidious, compounding over the years, creating some unintended negative consequences not only between the twins themselves once they reach adolescence but can impede how others (friends, classmates, even family) relate to the twins individually. And once these perceptions are set by first or second grade (the time when most twins share a classroom) they are often difficult to change even if the twins then separate for third grade and beyond.
When young twins share a classroom their classmates are naturally drawn to them and the questions begin, “Who was born first?” “Who’s taller?” and yes, even, “Who’s smarter?” and “Who’s a better kick-ball player?” They are fascinated by the twin mystique, the idea that all twins are somehow intrinsically connected and therefore should be the same, equal. But it’s these early comparisons that are often internalized by the twins themselves and can lead to rivalry and competition once the siblings hit middle school even if they no longer share a classroom. Peers, still hung up on the mysticism surrounding twins, continue their comparisons but now they’re more pointed, “Why didn’t you make the football team like your brother?” or “Hey, your brother beat you and got the math award!” To the twins’ classmates, these comparisons aren’t cruel or unfair, they’re simply observations. But to twins, the comparisons are a constant reminder that one of them will always be better at something; they are always competitors.
Furthermore, regardless of their opposite personalities or how differently they dress, when same-age siblings share a classroom, the lines of where one twin ends and the other begins can get very blurry, and the pair is seen as one entity. It becomes much harder for classmates to get to know each twin personally, individually. They begin to get the reputation as an all-or-nothing proposition. Or, twin discrimination can come into play as some classmates who may like only one twin will feel uncomfortable inviting just that child over for a play date or birthday party. Instead of risking the feelings of the other twin, will choose not to invite either. Teachers, too, sometimes choose not to award one twin to avoid hurt feelings of the other.
But what about just sheer proximity? Young twins spend so much time together outside of school (they eat together, play together–I don’t need to continue as you can fill in the list) that the classroom can actually be a sanctuary for a twin, the only place where he can have a unique, solitary experience or memory that he can truly call his very own and share all by himself at the dinner table without his cotwin constantly interrupting to add or change a detail.
That’s massive! It’s this ownership of alone time that as singletons we take for granted but many twins never experience for the first six, seven, even eight years of their lives. Some might argue that that would be the reason for keeping them together since these twins have spent little time apart from their cotwins. But I believe that parents should view their twins constant need to be together as a red flag, not something as endearing and therefore grossly encouraged. Instead parents should step in and be preemptive by scheduling slow gradual separation of their twins (take each one to the park separately, for instance) starting when they’re very young so by the time they reach kindergarten, they’re ready and willing to spend the majority of the school day apart.
Many parents with young twins look at this emotional issue through a very different prism than parents with older twins. On the one hand, parents with preschool twins see their twins’ relationship as tender and innocent. They want to nurture their bond, protect it. Yet parents of older twins know that the twin bond will thrive when each is given the opportunity to experience life as an individual. Parents of twins need to celebrate their children’s individuality and be an advocate for it. When twins are given the opportunity to shine on their own, pursue their own passions and friendships out of the shadow of their cotwins, it actually builds and strengthens their twin bond. Without the pressure to be together sharing the same spotlight, the guilt and responsibility of caring for another dissipates and they’re free to be true best friends. And one important way to achieve this is to allow each child the benefit of his own classroom.