I recently asked my mom if Reed and I were treated differently than our three older siblings. She paused. "We treated you together… as one child." As a "child couple," parents, teachers and other adults often made comments about us in relation to each other. I wasn't just good at school, I was slightly better than Reed. And Reed wasn't just a great athlete, he was sportier than me.
Adults also had strong ideas about how much time my twin and I should spend together, whether or not we should be separated in school, and what skills and friendships each of us should nurture.
When Reed and I were born in 1964, twins were a novelty. However, the birth of twins and other multiples (triplets and quadruplets) has since increased dramatically, a result of women delaying childbirth until after age 35 (the older you are, the greater your chance of conceiving twins) and the heightened use of fertility drugs. The rate of twins born in Canada has increased 35 per cent, according to Statistics Canada and Health Canada, while the rate of multiples increased at even higher rates. Each day more than 26 Canadian moms give birth to multiples.
While there are no hard-and-fast rules for raising multiples today, there has been a shift in thinking over the years. We recognize multiples need to be treated as individuals, while also respecting that they have a unique relationship with each other, says Gail Moore, chair of Multiple Births Canada (MBC) and a vice-chair of the Council of Multiple Birth Organizations, and a parent of 16-year-old twin boys. To emphasize the special connection that multiples have, as well as the shift away from the "adults know best" approach of raising these children, Moore recalls one mother who kept putting her twins in separate beds, only to find them back in the same bed every time she came into the room. The mother soon thought, Who am I to say what is right for them?
We talked to parents, as well as experts in the field, about the key parenting stresses of raising multiples today – and the solutions that work. Here's what they had to say.
Challenge: Separating multiples at school
Solution: In Canada, school board policies requiring that multiples be put in different classes are slowly changing. Teachers and principals are listening to parents and allowing them and their children to make the decision. But often what works best varies from one family to the next.
Page 1 of 3 -- Learn why it's important to treat each child as an individual with expert parenting advice on page 2
Tamela Collrin, a mother of six-year- old boy-girl twins who lives in New Maryland, N.B., struggled with whether to put both her children in Grade 1 in September or to keep her son, Avery, back because he was having difficulties. Eventually, Tamela decided it was important to keep the twins together, and had a resource teacher provide separate one-on-one time for Avery to help him keep up in grade school.
On the other hand, Sheila, a mother of eight-year-old triplets in Saskatoon, has been happy with her decision to put her children in separate classes. "It helps to take the external comparison off," says Sheila.
If you can't decide on whether or not to separate your multiples at school, consider these tips from MBC, based on the latest research in Australia and the U.K.
• Allow multiples who want to be in the same class to stay together.
• Do not automatically separate multiples in their first year of school; it could add to the stress of starting school.
• Each year, re-evaluate the need for your children to be in the same class or apart.
• Consider separation in certain situations, such as when being together is causing unhealthy comparisons, and one is feeling inadequate; when the multiples are distracting each other from learning; or when their social skills are not developing appropriately.
Solution: Parents with multiples are often given well-intended but misguided and oversimplified parenting advice, says Patricia Malmstrom, a twin expert and author. "A good example is the oft repeated caution that one should never compare multiples. But of course you will, just as you compare single children," she says. Malmstrom also encourages parents to identify differences that you can celebrate.
Despite our best efforts, negative comparisons are often more likely to occur to multiples, particularly if the children look and behave alike. While parents may stress over comparing their children and preferring one child's company to the other's, take heart in knowing that these feelings are normal, says Vikki Stark, a family therapist in Montreal and author of My Sister, My Self: Understanding the Sibling Relationship that Shapes Our Lives, Our Loves, and Ourselves (McGraw-Hill, 2006).
Challenge: Treating your multiples as individuals
Solution: Dr. Audrey Huberman, an instructor in the early childhood education department at Ryerson University in Toronto, and a counsellor who specializes in the education of multiple-birth children, says seeing your multiples as separate individuals, and encouraging them to look at each other in this light, involves actually teaching your children how they are different in a way that normalizes difference. "One way to do this is to introduce each child to the other's preferences very early on. For example, use statements such as, 'Annie likes peanut butter and jam on her toast. Ben likes honey,'" says Huberman.
Parents of multiples can also give their children different experiences, which will help them develop as individuals. Stark suggests planning outings where, for example, Dad takes an older sibling to a movie with one of the twins, while Mom does an activity with the other twin.
Page 2 of 3 -- Find out how to handle when one sibling excels and the other doesn't on page 3
Challenge: Fairness versus equality
Solution: There's an important distinction between being fair with children and treating them equally. Huberman, who is a twin herself, says, "Parents need to focus on helping each child to get what she needs, not to get the same as the other child." An obvious example is enrolling them in extracurricular activities. While it is easy to sign multiples up for the same sports or arts classes when they're young, as they get older – and their own interests evolve – talk to them about what passions they want to pursue, and don't enrol one child in any type of lessons simply because a twin sibling expresses a desire to be involved in activities outside of school.
Solution: Concern over how to handle one child excelling above the other is another issue parents have to deal with. Rather than protecting her children by preventing them from competing, Moore tries to help her sons navigate the feelings they experience when one doesn't win. For instance, she'll say to the child, "This time you're being honoured. Next time it might be your twin brother," so he doesn't feel badly about the win.
Moore says that some multiples are so concerned about not coming out ahead of their sibling that they will opt out of a competition. She gives the example of one set of twins who were always first and second in track. In Grade 12, the one who always won quit because she felt that her twin was actually better than her and was simply not living up to her full potential. When she did so, the other sibling did indeed start to win, and even surpassed all previous records each of them held.
My twin and I played competitive badminton from a young age. Even now, at age 44, Reed avoids telling me he has just won an important squash tournament, perhaps because he knows that people will lavish praise on him that they never have on me. The thought that Reed would even consider my feelings shows a lot about his protectiveness and love for me, and the special bond we share as twins.
This story was originally titled "Raising Twins (and Multiples)" in the April 2009 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!
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