Managing the Differences

October 25, 2010

One of the amazing things about twins is how they demonstrate differences in children, differences that are very evident in spite of having identical genes (as far as science has been able to discover) and very very similar upbringing and circumstances.

 

Mrini and Tara, as I’ve mentioned before, have different personalities and they periodically switch. The quiet one becomes voluble, the submissive one becomes aggressive, the still(er) one becomes a perpetual motion machine, the eager-to-please one starts pushing the limits…

 

But there is at least one facet of their personalities that they haven’t swapped for a very long time – almost never: their ability to focus and work on something they want to accomplish.

 

I still remember how Mrini learnt to walk. They were 13 months old when they came to us and neither of them was walking. Remember they were in the bottom fifth percentile for weight and height and – more worryingly – hadn’t increased in weight at the normal rate in the first year. But nobody had said anything about any developmental delays, so I wasn’t worrying about when they would walk. As I said often, by the time they go to college, I’m sure they’ll have mastered it. In a way, I was a little bit relieved that they weren’t walking yet – at least it was one significant milestone that we wouldn’t have missed out on.

 

They both enjoyed being held by the hand and made to walk, and we, of course, loved to do that as well.

 

One morning, Mrini decided it was the day she was going to walk. She practiced for a straight 15 minutes. For a 13- or 14-month old, that’s a lifetime. She stood up, shakily, and sat down with a bump; stood up, sat down; stood up, sat down. After this went on for a long time, she stood up and walked – a good 12 or 15 steps, from the living room of our former apartment all the way to near the fridge in the dining room.

 

This determination of hers to “practice” or to determinedly work at something till she gets it is still very much a part of her. A few weeks ago, she told me she wanted to write. I wrote out a letter of the alphabet for her in a random blank-sheet notebook and gave it to her. I expected her to copy the letter in the line below, but to my surprise, she traced over it. After that, she has filled up several pages of the blank notebook and shown considerable enthusiasm in buying a four-line notebook to continue her writing work. We bought her a four-line notebook and she’s used up several pages of that too, already. I never ask her to write – she’s always the one who suggests it and persists till I give in. (“Give in” because I have to stop whatever I’m doing and get up to get the notebook off from the highest level of the bookshelf.) She’s thrilled to do her writing work and tells me which letter she wants and works diligently at tracing over it until she has filled up one page. Then she puts it away until next time.

 

Some time ago, she started recognizing letters in newspaper headlines. “Mmmmm for Mini” is her favourite, I think. At any rate, it was the first she learnt to spot and the one she still asks for most often when she’s practicing writing. Yesterday, she was trying to read the letters in the logo on my T-shirt. I think she’s going to be stringing sounds together to make words, soon. Wow – she’s almost learning to read and spell. It is an exciting development to watch!

 

There are other things that Mrini works hard at too. She’s diligent at following Amit’s instructions at sport – tennis, football, and catch. The fact that she’s eager for approval and praise makes her an easy child to coach (and a difficult one to scold – she is apt to break into the most heart-rending sobs if she feels she is being wrongly chided; she also gets very seriously scared if she accidentally manages to do some serious damage which hurts someone or breaks something).

 

Tara, on the other hand. She used to be able to focus, albeit sporadically. Once in a way, she would set out to do something and work at it very sincerely for ten minutes. But not any more. She shows no interest in writing, like Mrini does, but doesn’t make up for it by being very interested in anything else. She won’t focus on any of the games that Amit tries to get them to play, so she doesn’t show any sign of promise. She doesn’t take well to being instructed, and seems to have not much desire to earn approval. She doesn’t give a hoot if we scold her, either. As far as I can tell the only activity she really likes is listening to and telling stories, and the only form of attention she wants is to sit in my lap (not something that I encourage a lot of).

 

Sometimes, when I praise Mrini for something she’s working seriously on, I have to simultaneously scold Tara for either being disruptive, or for being disobedient, insolent, or otherwise difficult. I do realize that when Mrini is getting attention for all the things she’s doing well, Tara might feel the only way she can compete for attention is by being naughty. But I wish she wouldn’t. I know that the best way to discourage negative attention-getting behavior is to ignore it, but often that is very difficult to do. Also, it can lead to an escalation of negative behavior till it becomes impossible to ignore. And not reacting to mildly irritating behavior then getting provoked by seriously irritating behavior is counter-productive because it teaches kids that if you push the right buttons long enough and hard enough, you’ll get the attention you were aiming for.

 

I don’t want to create any kind of dichotomy between the kids, of the sort that this one is such a good girl, that one is such a bad girl. I don’t want Tara to feel that she can never be “better” than Mrini so it’s not even worth trying.

 

And yet… to not praise Mrini for her work is not right; and to not discourage Tara’s disruptive/disobedient behavior is not right either.

 

Strangely enough, at school there doesn’t seem to be a problem. We went to pick up their report cards on Saturday and got equally glowing reports for both girls. If there were any kind of deficit in focus on Tara’s part, their teacher would surely have mentioned it. So it looks like it is a problem that is specific to home.

 

Here is one of the challenges of having twins. With siblings, the differences in abilities and attitudes of the two are less evident precisely because of the age difference, which offers an all-too-evident explanation of their differences – an explanation that is probably quite evident to the kids themselves. With twins, their own perception of their comparative abilities is much clearer. Even if we were to ignore Mrini’s efforts and hard work, Tara can see for herself how well Mrini does something that she, herself, can’t do. Even without any special praise for Mrini from Amit and me, she might still think, Oh, I can’t do better than that, why even bother trying?

 

A question that’s been on my mind lately: How can I help Tara find things that she likes to work on and motivate her to work on them for long enough so that I can give her attention and praise and work with her without having to discipline her every few minutes and without having her feel threatened by Mrini?

 

Another question I have often asked myself: How can “identical” twins be so different???

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