I have come to the realisation that I am an annoyingly contrary parent. I could blame it on having twins with very different personalities… and so I shall. I sometimes feel that being a twin parent is an opportunity to witness a nature/nurture experiment in action. But it’s a lot more complicated than I thought. Although my twins were born on the same day to the same parents, and have had as similar an environment as it is possible to have, that doesn’t make their upbringing identical. They have one very big difference in their experience: me. Since they are both so different, I end up being different to them, while hoping that they don’t pick up on any inconsistencies!
I first became aware of it when my two first started to be properly mobile. My son, who I shall call Ernest from now on, (not his real name, but appropriate nonetheless) was a very cautious toddler. We used to persuade, encourage and cajole him to climb on a climbing frame, or go down a small slide. “You can do it!” I would say. “It’s completely safe – I’ll catch you,” I would coax him. We praised every tiny step towards overcoming a fear. We would call him courageous, brave, grown-up – you name it.
And then there was my daughter, who I shall call Joy (again, not her real name.) While Ernest was trying to pluck up the courage to go down a two-foot slide, she was hurtling headfirst down helter-skelter. While Ernest was reluctantly climbing onto the first rung of a rope ladder, she would be jumping off the top level of a climbing frame with gay abandon, utterly trusting that we would catch her, whether she’d warned us or not. And was I praising these feats of bravery and courage? Not in the least. “Joy, be careful. Think before you jump. Check it’s safe first. Not so high.” We were desperately just trying to keep her alive!
And it doesn’t stop at those first days of teaching courage to one twin, and caution to the other. As they get older, and their personalities continue to develop in very different ways, I find myself constantly promoting the opposite of what they naturally want to do. Ernest loves his Lego sets, always following the instructions to the letter, never using any item for anything other than its original purpose. Joy takes a scarf and wears it like a dress and puts pencil cases on her feet as shoes. Am I congratulating Ernest on his ability to follow complex instructions and praising Joy’s out-of-the-box creativity? Well, yes, sometimes. But I’m also telling Ernest to use his imagination and make up his own constructions (thank you The Lego Movie – that helped!) and Joy to use things as they were intended otherwise they get damaged.
You try to be completely fair as a parent. As a twin parent, you are acutely aware that any inconstancies in approach are immediately recognisable, and cannot be explained away as “he/she is older/younger than you.” I realise I am often giving mixed messages to my twins. To one twin, I’m the one that’s constantly trying to get him to do things he finds scary, playing down the consequences, and teaching the value of taking a little risk. To the other I’m the one preventing her from just experiencing care-free fun, telling her to stop and think first. Their memories of me when they are grown-up may not match up entirely! But being fair with twins, or with any children, does not mean the same thing as treating them exactly the same way. Children are all born different, and you have to alter your parenting style accordingly, which becomes very obvious when your children are the same age.
Sometimes I do listen to myself when I am telling one twin they should be reading more, and the other one that they should be more active, and I wonder “why am I constantly trying to push them away from their natural inclination?” It’s not that I don’t value what they are doing naturally – I must do, because I’m always trying to get the other twin to do it. I have to remind myself to stop and marvel at the things they can do naturally, without any push from me. I just also see a value in teaching them what they wouldn’t think to do for themselves, because it will help them be more balanced and rounded (and safe, in my daughter’s case!)
So how to get around this and not have your children think that you are inconsistent or unfair? The first step is to be aware of it, and think about how your children will hear what you are saying. They may see you encourage their twin to do something you are telling them not to do. Make sure you explain why. If you know why you are doing it, your children will understand when you explain.
Make sure to praise what they are doing naturally so that they know you feel there is a value to what comes more easily to them. There are always two sides to every coin: if your child is very cautious and afraid of risk, they are likely to be very good at understanding consequences and keeping safe. If they don’t think before they act, and don’t consider safety before doing something, they may be more adaptable to change and open to new experiences. (This is also a development issue that resolves as they get older and experience more “consequences.”) If you have a child that is a bit rigid about keeping to the instructions, it means they are very good at structured, logical thinking and problem-solving. If they never want to follow the instructions or use things as they are meant to, it probably means they are very creative and independent-minded.
I may be different in what I encourage each twin to do, but the underlying message is always the same – I want to help them to be the best versions of themselves they can be. I don’t want to mould them into something they are not, but that doesn’t mean they don’t benefit from a little encouragement to develop aspects of themselves they wouldn’t think to do on their own. I just must always remember to temper it with an understanding of their underlying nature.
I think it’s impossible to ever disentangle genetics from environment. I am different to each twin because they are different to me, which starts an endless feedback-loop where you no longer know how much is genetics and how much is your response to those genetics. So what do I say when someone asks which of the twins’ traits are nature and which parts are nurture? It probably depends on who’s asking…