"You better make sure the chocolate chip cookie is split straight down the middle!" This was the unorthodox advice doled out by a child development expert at a lecture for parents of multiples I attended while my young boy and girl twins were still in diapers. The topic of the discussion was on managing competition and rivalry between children close in, or of the same, age. I was a new mother at the time – absorbing parenting information like a sponge. The lecturer's anecdotal advice revolved around the notion that young siblings will always expect – in fact, demand – total equality in parenting … from the measurement of hugs and kisses, to the distribution of toys, to the quantity of play dates, and even down to exactly how evenly that proverbial chocolate chip cookie (lest there only be one to share) is divided. She explained to our group of unsuspecting new parents that "it would be our kids who would keep us accountable." I left the meeting that night with the chocolate chip cookie message reverberating in my head. Not only did I take it to heart, but I went home and shared the "news" with my husband that we had better maintain total balance in the parenting of our new twins … or else.
The phenomenon, as it relates to children's expectations, does, of course, ring true. As soon as our twins could walk and talk, they began to assert their need for equal measures of attention. It started with benign requests like "She licked the ice cream spoon; I want to also" and "Santa brought him a bigger toy … can I have one the same size?" Children under the age of five don't have the maturity or perspective thinking to not sweat these details – and they are surprisingly adept sticklers for record-keeping. As our kids grew beyond toddler-hood, the comparative lessons in equality evolved to include social-based as well as material needs: "Why does she get to go on a play date – and I don't?" or "Why is he invited to that birthday party and I'm not?" and so on.
According to Rachelle Tyler, M.D., developmental-behavioral pediatrician at the Mattel Children's Hospital at UCLA, sibling rivalry is a healthy part of growing up.1 Young children often make comparative observations – especially at a developmental age where they are still trying to make sense of the rapidly expanding world around them. There are many good rules of thumb for effectively and lovingly guiding same or near age children to help them feel safe and secure in their core family relationships. These include some obvious common sense tactics2 such as:
• Don't play favorites
• Don't make comparisons between your children in front of them
• Do reinforce the idea that "everyone is good at something different, and no one is great at everything"
• Do always try to promote cooperation (through activities, chores and tasks that can turn into opportunities for sharing and bonding )
• Do make sure that you and the other adults in your children's lives are not demonstrating overly competitive behavior, which presents poor role modeling
• Do set aside individual, uninterrupted time to be spent with each child on a weekly basis that doesn't involve any competition for attention
Our little ones are now past the early tribulations of the pre-school years – so rich in the behavioral lessons that become the beacons for self-esteem and character building. As I look back at the many times my husband and I smirked to each other about what we still affectionately refer to as the "Chocolate Chip Cookie Syndrome," I'm thankful that, as we grew ourselves into the role of parenting, we were mindful of - but not slaves to - the issue of sibling, and especially twin, equality. We have tried thus far to raise our same age children on a consistent playing field that delivers a comparable experience within reason – with "reason" being the operative word. Ebb and flow is perhaps more important in life than pure "equality." After all, sometimes things work out the way we want them to and sometimes they don't – but with a measure of luck, it often all balances out in the end.
Most importantly, multiples and siblings close in age need differentiation to develop their own sense of identity – and when experiences are always matched tit for tat, this unique awareness is inhibited. According to author Susan Heim's parenting forum, "it is important to focus not on treating (children) equally, but on treating them fairly and on finding ways to meet their individual needs."3 While their experiences may not be the same on every occasion, close age siblings can grow in the confidence and knowledge that they will each be able to eventually "take their turn." Perhaps this way of thinking is the chocolate chip cookie philosophy in reverse.
Every family with young children close in age will ultimately need to find their own unique sense of balance within their household, matched to their personal style of child-rearing. My husband and I have thankfully moved beyond feeling the weight of those early infant-era pressures to serve up exactly "equal parts" of the experience for our multiples. Others with near age siblings will also need to navigate their way through this same delicate balance of parenting – in large part, following their intuition about what feels right for their family. There is, however, one aspect of the now tongue-in-cheek "cookie theory" that we do still live and die by – and, as any parent who has more than one child can attest to, it revolves around the power of love for our children. Now, that's one thing that will always be … equal on both sides and "straight down the middle."