Giving Siblings Room to Grow
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing parents of twins, or even siblings who are close in age, is how to help them maintain their identities while also fostering a sense of equality.
It’s the major dilemma parents of multiples point out, and it’s not something that can be easily answered by a parenting handbook or advice on a website.
Dana and Ely DesJardins are the parents of identical twins Maya and Camille, 2, as well as Gavin, 4, and Zander, 6.
“Sibling rivalry is huge in our house,” Dana DesJardins says. “The boys are constantly competing — who can run faster, swing higher, color better, who has more pudding. The twins have been competing for attention since they were born, stealing each other’s binkies and fighting over toys. Sibling rivalry is exhausting to the parents. It might (not) be right, but it’s definitely easier to dress them the same, give them the same sippy cup, same sport, same bicycle. If you don’t, it’s ‘not fair,’ and there will most definitely be a fight.”
DesJardins says she curbs some of the sibling rivalry by spending time alone with each child and encouraging each one’s individual likes and preferences.
“It’s hard knowing the difference between an actual interest or wanting something just because their brother or sister is doing it,” she admits. “I think that is one of the challenges with raising identical twins to be individuals.”
Natalie Mikles, food writer for the Tulsa World, and her husband Jason, have fraternal twin girls, 1-year-old Annabeth and Mary Kate, and a little boy on the way.
Though her daughters are young, she already recognizes differences in their personalities — Annabeth is talkative and more adventurous, while Mary Kate is quiet and more reserved — but she tries not to label them.
“I hate to talk about it too much, thinking, ‘Am I putting it on them? Is it my perception, or is it real?’” she says. “I’m careful not to say too much about, ‘She is the adventurous one,’ or, ‘She is the more tentative one,’ because I don’t know if that’s how they’ll be in the long term. I don’t want to peg them that way for life.”
Trisha Miller, a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice that operates within Psychiatric Associates, at 4612 S. Harvard, works with children 12 years and younger and their caregivers.
“Just as parents of non-multiples, parents of twins — or more — can help each child develop their own likes, dislikes, strengths, and skills by providing an atmosphere of acceptance, encouragement and variety,” she says. “Giving children new experiences across a variety of domains, showing acceptance by joining in the activity or giving positive verbal and nonverbal feedback and then encouraging future involvement as the child desires it, are all important in fostering interests and skills unique to each child.”
DesJardins says she’s been careful not to enroll any of her children in activities unless they request it. Rather than encouraging them to do something because it’s what she and her husband enjoy, she hopes to let them form their own personalities and make their own decisions about their likes and interests.
“The number one thing would be listen to your child,” she advises parents. “Try not to have too many expectations.”
Kauleen and Shaun Fisher have four children — 2-year-old McKinney, 4-year-old Garrison and 6-year-old fraternal twins Baylor and Piercen.
Kauleen Fisher contends, because Baylor is a girl and Piercen is a boy, the rivalry between the two and the struggle for individuality isn’t as strong as it would be if they were the same sex or identical twins.
“They don’t have the twin relationship I believe same-sex twins would have,” she says. “They don’t need each other; they don’t rely on each other. They are totally independent of each other.”
That’s not to say they’re not close. They do have a special bond, and they get along well together, but Fisher says most of the competition in the house is between Piercen and Garrison.
“They play quite a bit together, but they are also my two who constantly harass each other,” she says. “They get into fights frequently. They like to play together, but they’re always arguing. Piercen is always saying, ‘I can do this and you can’t.’
“I think that’s sometimes why Garrison acts out, because he continually has to hear what (Piercen and Baylor) can do and he can’t. Being so close in age, I think that bothers him.”
Piercen and Baylor are in the same class at Zarrow Elementary school, a decision Fisher made because she thought they could each use the support of having their twin in the same classroom. But next year, she says, she’ll separate them.
Piercen does noticeably better in school than Baylor, and the Fishers struggle with applauding him while also encouraging her. At the end of the year, though, the tables were sort of turned, when Baylor took home a classroom award and Piercen didn’t.
“This year at school, Baylor got ‘most improved student’ in her classroom and ‘most improved in art,’” Fisher says. “Pierce didn’t say much about it bothering him, but I think it did. I said to him, ‘Baylor tried really hard this year.’”
She also spent time alone with him, going over his grade card and applauding his high scores.
“In that sense, you just have to separate them and fill them up with as much encouragement as you can,” she says. “You can always point something out in each child. They’re each individuals and they each do good things. You definitely have to learn to say things the right way, or one child could take it in a way that could hurt them.”
“It is important for parents to remember that treating children equally doesn’t have to mean doing everything exactly the same,” Miller points out. “This scenario can offer an opportunity to teach children how to handle disappointment and can also foster individuality.
“Helping children to understand this concept is more difficult because, at the younger ages, the concept of conservation — pouring the same amount of liquid into two differently shaped containers doesn’t change the amount of liquid — [isn’t easily understood]. Still, parents can provide descriptive explanations when one is invited (to a party, for instance) and the other is not to help the child make sense of the situation, and then the parents can turn their focus onto what they will get to do instead rather than focusing on not getting to go.”
Scott Gaffen, house manager for the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, is 36 and a twin, though he’s waiting on genetic testing to confirm whether he and his brother Jeff are identical or fraternal.
Gaffen says he remembers kindergarten as being the first time he craved individuality and recognition apart from his brother.
“Kindergarten was our last year in class together,” he says. “We became too competitive, so it was easier for us to be who we were when we weren’t trying to compete against each other. We were very conscious of how we were perceived by people. We were always considered a unit; we never got the individual accolades a lot because teachers didn’t want to upset us.
“In separate classes, that never became an issue because it was earned on your own merit.”
Gaffen says competing for time and attention from their parents was something he and Jeff never had to do.
“My parents always addressed us differently, as far as how they dealt with us,” he says. “Jeff was probably the more bottled up twin, and I was the one who could be talked to more. But I also got in trouble more.
“I was the one who was instigating things to happen; he always held back, the cautious one,” he says. “I took more risks, and I think our parents dealt with us on that level. I think they’re both proud of us equally. We were never considered a unit to our parents.”
“Some of these issues, as a parent, I don’t know the answers to, but hopefully I’ll raise children who are confident enough to know they don’t have to be the same,” DesJardins says.
“Regardless of how many children one has, it is critical for a parent to be a good listener, model positive ways of interacting and handling situations, and how to take care of oneself in a healthy way,” Miller says. “Paying attention to a child’s behavior by figuring out what message the child is telling through it is key.”
What’s the up-side of having more than one child?
Most likely your kids’ relationship will eventually develop into a close one. Working things out with siblings gives your children a chance to develop important skills like cooperating and being able to see another person’s point of view.
Here are some tips to help siblings get along:
• Don’t play favorites. This one is a “biggie.”
• Try not to compare your children to one another. For example, don’t say things like, “Your brother gets good grades in math—why can’t you?”
• Let each child be who he or she is. Don’t try to pigeonhole or label them.
• Enjoy each of your children’s individual talents and successes.
• Set your kids up to cooperate rather than compete. For example, have them race the clock to pick up toys, instead of racing each other.
• Pay attention to the time of day or other patterns when conflicts usually occur. Are conflicts more likely right before naps or bedtime or maybe when children are hungry before meals? Perhaps a change in the routine, an earlier meal or snack, or a well-planned quiet activity when the kids are at loose ends could help avert your kids’ conflicts.
• Teach your kids positive ways to get attention from each other. Show them how to approach another child and ask them to play, and to share their belongings and toys.
• Being fair is very important, but it is not the same as being equal. Older and younger children may have different privileges due to their age, but if children understand that this inequality is because one child is older or has more responsibilities, they will see this as fair. Even if you did try to treat your children equally, there will still be times when they feel as if they’re not getting a fair share of attention, discipline, or responsiveness from you. Expect this and be prepared to explain the decisions you have made. Reassure your kids that you do your best to meet each of their unique needs.
• Plan family activities that are fun for everyone. If your kids have good experiences together, it acts as a buffer when they come into conflict. It’s easier to work it out with someone you share warm memories with.
• Make sure each children have enough time and space of their own. Kids need chances to do their own thing, play with their own friends without their sibling, and to have their space and property protected.