Do you have a favorite twin? Do you feel a secret preference for one over the other? Many parents do, whether they admit it or not. It's normal. It happens to most parents at some point. In fact a 2007 study claims that it is instinctive, that parents can't help but show favoritism.
However, in families with singletons, birth order lends a structure to the favoritism. Maybe Dad brags about his high-achieving eldest child, while Mom fawns over the baby of the family. But when there are twins or multiples, where there is an expectation of equality, favoritism feels uglier, more hurtful. In Parenting School-Age Twins and Multiples, Christina Baglivi Tinglof says, "Favoritism, although it exists in nearly all families to a certain degree (and isn't more common in a family with multiples), does seem to be more glaring, more conspicuous when it happens in a family with twins or multiples."
Parental preference certainly exists. In some cases it is actual and expressed by parents, and in others it is merely a perception (or misperception) on the part of a child. It can generate stress and guilt for parents, and produce some unhealthy effects for children. In most cases, favoritism ebbs and flows, changing with circumstances. It can take root from the earliest postpartum days or wait to surface in adolescence.
About half of twins are born prematurely and they may suffer complications or require hospitalization after birth. When one twin is sicker than the other, anxious parents may find that they bond differently with each child. Perhaps the parent feels that extra devotion to the weaker twin will help them grow stronger, or conversely, finds it difficult to build an attachment to a baby that is struggling. A study of twin families found that parents tended to feel more positive attachment to the baby that left the hospital first.
Sometimes the demand of caring for two infants produces a type of parental favoritism. To meet the demands, some parents fall into a natural routine of splitting up the work; Mom takes care of one twin and Dad is the primary caregiver for the other. As the twins grow up, this parental alignment remains in place, and the parents feel a preference for the child in their care.
Favoritism can produce unhealthy family dynamics and undesirable consequences, such as anxiety or discipline problems. Jealousy between twins can be intense, resulting in hostility. A twin who feels less favored may become overdependent on his co-twin, seeking to fill the void he senses in his bond with his parents. Conversely, a twin who senses her parents favor her may feel burdened by guilt. So it is important for parents to be aware of the issue of twin favoritism and seek to avoid it before it causes problems for the family.
At the same time, it's important to keep things in perspective. Where do parents of twins draw the line between treating their multiples as individuals and showing favoritism? We work so hard to "be fair" and treat them equally. We ensure that they receive equal portions and take turns. So perhaps we are more sensitive, more careful about avoiding the appearance of favoritism.
When my daughters were born, one required kangaroo care, skin-to-skin contact to help her regulate her body temperature. Since then, we've always seemed to enjoy a more snuggly physical affection that literally dates back to "day one." While I am certainly affectionate with my other daughter, I used to worry that she would perceive this difference in my relationship with her sister as a form of favoritism. Yet, at the same time, I know she would rather do an activity together or receive verbal praise.
Here are some tips for managing favoritism in families with twins.
- First, sort through your feelings. Don't worry about positive feelings towards one child, but be concerned if you feel overly and continuously negative towards the other. It's normal to occasionally feel a preference towards one child based on circumstances or personality. However, you may require family counseling to work through issues if you are unable to feel loving towards a child.
- Remember that your twins are individuals. They have different interests, abilities, and needs. Your job as a parent is not to be "fair" but to meet their needs as best you can. Sometimes that means that you spend more time with one or the other. That doesn't mean that you are showing favoritism, but rather allocating your parenting resources.
- Make it a point to spend one-on-one time with each child at every age. This offers a chance to discover and share in their unique interests, as well as an opportunity to communicate.
- If you are feeling guilt over a preference for one child, don't overcompensate by relaxing discipline or rewarding the other child with material goods. Kids will manipulate their parents' emotions to their advantage.
- Be careful with your words. Even joking about having a favorite can generate a misperception to a child. You never know when you are being overheard or whether your twins are too young to understand a sarcastic remark.
- Recognize the difference between love and like. Every parent likes and dislikes aspects of their child's personality. That's not the same as loving one more than the other.
- Read about it. The children's book, ]I Love You the Purplest Book by Barbara M. Joosse addresses the issue in a sensitive and loving way, explaining how a mother can love her children equally for who they are, even if she expresses it differently.