Good twin/bad twin. It’s just the dichotomy we’re meant to avoid, all the books say so. One child who puts her coat on and goes to bed when she’s supposed to, and wears a halo for it. The other with a forked tail between his legs, because he doesn’t do either of those things without a drop-down fight. Praise the positive behavior, discipline the negative, it sounds simple enough. But what happens when the breakdown of behavior between twins, between any siblings really, is continually reinforcing an angel/devil dynamic? Do you let things slide for the “bad” kid so as to not make him feel oppressed or less loved? Do you hold back compliments from the “good” kid for the very same reason?
I know, I know, let’s not call them “good” and “bad.” Before I became a mother, I frowned upon the linear use of those words. Surely, I thought, parents could do better than bandying about such morally generic expressions to describe their offspring. We’re talking about children, after all, not cantaloupes. Never label the kid, only label the specific behavior, that’s the golden rule, right? Oh how the mighty fall. If I had a dollar for every “Such a good girl!” or “What a good boy!” that escapes my lips, well, I’d have many more dollars than I do now. For bad behavior, I concede, I change the word. I’ll ask my three year olds to stop being “difficult,” I’ll scold them for being “naughty.” Once upon a time, “naughty” sounded so prissy to me, so British. And now, here I am, a schoolmarm in the making.
The reason I embrace this language, I’ve come to see, is because toddlers don’t get nuance. They get “good.” “Good” is clear, “good” is desirable, “good” is a blanket term for sitting down at the table the first time you’re asked, for spontaneously saying please, for eating your food, you know, with a utensil. They get “naughty” too. “Naughty” is “No!”, “naughty” is not what Mommy wants, “naughty” is pouring your milk into your spaghetti and using the mixture as a medium for wall art.
All toddlers are crazy, but each is crazy in his or her own special way (to paraphrase Tolstoy). Watching twins navigate the terrible, trying, testing—whatever T word you care to ascribe to that period of time between 23 months and four years old (if you are lucky), when life feel likes one giant game of tug-of-war—has underscored this for me in an unprecedented way. And some kinds of crazy, truth be told, are easier to deal with than others. Which takes us back to the good/bad dichotomy.
My daughter is dramatic and obsessive and a little aloof, but she is conciliatory by nature. She thrives on order. She follows instructions and accepts convention. She recognizes the link between cause and effect, the fact that certain behavior will ineluctably land you in your room and that it is therefore best not to engage in said behavior. My son, on the other hand, is funny and outgoing. But he marches to the beat of his own drummer. He balks at routine. When all three of my other children are dressed and buckled into the car, there he stands, framed by the doorway, naked as the day he was born. No matter how many times he has been punished for it, he will still throw the remnants of his snack bag across the living room, like confetti at a wedding, just to see the pieces fly.
You might have had a toddler like my daughter. You might have had a toddler like my son. But have you had them at the exact same time?
Siblings are fixated on what they perceive the other one is getting or what they perceive they themselves are missing out on. This is true in general, but it is particularly so, agonizingly so, for twins. If singletons are born with an ultra-sensitive fairness barometer built into their psyches, activated the minute their parents give birth to another child, twins are born with it already dialed to HIGH. Praise one, you’ll get a pleading “But what about me, Mommy?” Speak sternly to the other, you’ll get a “But I’m great at waiting my turn, Mommy!” Fairness is important. Equality is impossible. As confused as these two properties can get in the realm of parenting, they are not the same thing.
I make every attempt to treat my twins fairly, but I don’t treat them equally, if they are not behaving equally well. It might seem obvious in theory, but it’s damn hard work in practice. It means you don’t get dessert if you don’t finish your dinner, despite the fact that your sister is slurping ice cream right next to you. I have no solution to the good twin/bad twin dynamic currently playing out in my house, only the observation that childhood is a series of unequal phases, for the parents as much as the children. Different ages suit different children and different children suit their parents’ personalities at different ages. The hope is that the phases pan out in a roughly equal way over the duration.
My older children have taken it in turns, so far. My “angry” baby transformed into a toddler who was surrounded by an aura of sunshine. My dream baby, the one who was so placid there were moments I would wonder if anybody was even in there, is now filled full of tween sass, calling his brother a dickhead every chance he gets. My twins? They too are bound to flip flop. I see in my daughter’s histrionics, which are containable at three, flashes of the diva she will most likely be at thirteen. I see in my son, once he is old enough to set the pace of his own life, the potential for a boy whose obsession with the mechanics of the world will be a credit to him and not a thorn in my side. I suspect it won’t be long before I’ll be writing another post in which their roles are reversed: good twin/bad twin part two (or three or four). Stay tuned.
This is Childhood, a book and journal about the first years of childhood.