I was intrigued by a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, titled, “I’m a mom of twins. The movie Three Identical Strangers changed how I parent them.” It was written by Ellen Nordberg, a mother of identical twin boys.
Three Identical Strangers, the moment that everyone remembers
I loathe spoilers so I will not include any, but it’s important to understand the basic premise of the movie for this article. In the movie – a true story – three triplets were separated as babies by an adoption agency. They were adopted out to three different families who never knew that each child was a triplet. The moment from the movie that most viewers will remember is when it was recounted that one triplet was banging his head against the crib when he was separated from his brothers.
The Washington Post opinion piece
This moment seemed to inspire Ms. Nordberg to rail against the mainstream advice to separate one’s twins. As readers of my book know, my advice flows with this principle: that separation enables a child to discover his identity, his individuality — and it enables a parent to truly get to know each child. Separation helps each twin set out an individual imprint on the world. Separation also helps demonstrate to others that each child is a unique human being with distinct desires, talents, thoughts, traits, etc.
But Ms. Nordberg noticed some ill-effects of this principle. She writes:
Subscribing to this theory of fostering independent identities, my husband and I took the advice of our pediatrician and many twin parenting books and separated our preschoolers for special one-on-one dates with each parent. We thought they’d love the individual attention.
“Why are you punishing us?” they asked instead.
Her boys really wanted to be together at home and at school. But she kept them in separate classes. She explains:
The boys went along with this plan but were inseparable during lunch, recess and PE. In third grade, their classrooms had a movable dividing wall. On the first day of school, Aidan’s teacher found him on the floor, poking his fingers under the tiny gap. She started to discipline him, then realized Axel was on the other side, holding his brother’s hand.
When the movie credits rolled, she asked herself:
[W]ho am I to determine that my sons should live separate lives? How should I know if being at different colleges or living in different cities would help them become more successful, more well-adjusted emotionally or better people?
The movie was indeed moving and explained the harm of separating triplets from each other FOR ALL TIME. Obviously, separating siblings forever is distinguishable from separating siblings for the 6-hour school day!
With Ms. Nordberg’s children, they both seemed to want to be together. And forcing them apart seemed to make them feel less comfortable in the world. It still may have been overall more beneficial than harmful to separate them. But perhaps Ms. Nordberg is right that we need to challenge the general mainstream advice to always separate twins.
My advice would still err on the side of encouraging separation, but I think the approach should be more deliberate and thoughtful. I think parents should take a close look and weigh the effects of separation on each child. And limit the separations, if it seems like that would overall be better for both children.
And separation does not have to be all-or-nothing. Maybe the children could stay together in school, but engage in different extra-curricular activities. Maybe the children are separated in school, but spend the entire weekends engaging in the same activities.
Lastly, it’s important for parents to recognize that their twin children do not think alike. While separation might be really hard for one child, it might be really easy for (and preferred by) the other child. So many of my twin interviewees felt totally differently from their co-twins about their relationship. Many told me something to the effect of, “While my twin wanted to be with me all the time, I needed space.” I also heard statements such as, “I love her, but sometimes I wished I wasn’t a twin so I could have my own life and experiences.”
So separation all the time? No, of course not. But together all the time is no panacea. Surely, there’s a happy medium somewhere. And a mindful parent who checks in frequently with his children (privately/separately) will be able to find it. That balance will be rocked from time to time if not adjusted. Separation may need to be dialed back or ramped up, depending on the current needs of the children. This is certain: twin children need to be alone some times. And at other times, they need to be together. And both are okay.