It is part of human nature to make comparisons and although siblings may be compared by parents, friends, teachers, and others, for multiple birth children direct comparisons can be made from birth without the “excuse” that one of the children is considerably younger.
“Relatives and other people are always comparing them. They even do it in front of the children saying other people are always comparing them. They even do it in front of the children saying things like one is prettier than the other.”
The real problem with twins is that there are two of them!
This very simple statement hides an important issue with lasting consequences for the development of multiples. From the moment of birth, people compare and stereotype them, possibly on the basis of something as minor as birth order or birth weight. It is important to realize how inappropriate this is. In the past 40 years or so, obstetric practices have changed. Whereas in the past the second-born was on average at higher risk, nowadays there is very little difference in health between the first-and-second born. Yet this accident of birth or a difference of only a few grams in birth weight can have enormous consequences for how the community sees them, and they see themselves.
Is it that parents need to see their multiples as individuals? In the Australian work, it was obvious that families latched on to some way to differentiate them. When it came to MZ (identical) twins, they would often base their differences on birth order or birth weight. In D2 (non-identical) twins, especially opposite-sex pairs, there were other more objective bases to differentiate the children
At meetings of parents of multiples, we often ask the question “Have any of you had someone ask “Who was the firstborn (or the heaviest at birth-another favorite question). Almost everyone says, “Yes.” Then we ask the question, “Did you ask them why they wanted to know this?”
How does this question immediately establish stereotypes for differences between the multiples?
If one multiple birth child is always compared to the detriment of the other(s), he or she may lose self-esteem and opt out. The children themselves may become overly concerned with comparing themselves, looking for differences to indicate that one is better than the other:
” In the nativity play, one got really upset because he was a shepherd and his brother was a king. The teacher got really cross as they both had parts, but she didn’t hear the one showing off at home about how the kings had the best clothes.”
These effects do accumulate. In a follow-up study of Australian twins, who came home from hospital first after the birth (a common practice in the 1970s but not so much nowadays) was a major predictor of self-esteem at adolescence.
As the twins were tracked over the years of assessment, it was clear this was something which developed from small differences in preschool to larger differences in primary school and even larger differences in adolescence… Such children had come to conform to expectations.
It is important not to bring such comparisons to the school. Every parent wants to tell the teacher a bit about their child, to help him or she gets to know the child better. When doing this with multiples, talk about each child individually rather than as part of a pair or more. Don’t say things such as, “This is the quieter one….”. The same goes for the teacher. Try to talk about each child’s strengths and weaknesses relative to their age-peers and not just to the other multiples. For example, you may say one twin is less socially mature than the other, whereas both are actually advanced for their age, but one a little more than the other. Seeing one twin as “worse” than the other is a message that soon gets to the parents and to the twins as meaning inferior to children in general.
When we went to assess the children, the mother introduced the twins “This is John, this is Jim, and he is the dull one.” Our testing showed little difference between the boys, but the parents simply did not believe this. When Jim was kept back a year (not unexpected, given the messages he had been given), he took his revenge by trying to burn down the school. (And this is a real story!)
Consultations between parents and teachers are an opportunity to view each child in context. Very often the teacher does not discuss each child individually but rather as part of the multiples. This issue is resolved simply by scheduling the meetings about each twin or higher multiple at separate times and avoiding the temptation to deal with all at once. In the case of higher multiples who may be spread across various classes based on ability and other differences, then there may be value in insisting on an additional meeting, where all the children are considered together, to get some appreciation of the complex dynamics with three, four or more. If one is surging ahead in their own class, what does this do to the others?