Parenting identical twin daughters is a constant education. One of the most important lessons I've learned thus far is that what you don't say is just as powerful as what you do say.
Because of this, I've become very aware of how I praise my daughters. A simple "I love you, Sydney" might cause Taylor to burst into tears. Because she only hears, "I don't love you, Taylor." That's not at all what I meant, and not even close to true. But, it's the truth that Taylor infers.
Both girls are equally affected this way with compliments, as well. For example, it would be risky to tell Taylor she has a beautiful smile.
"Hey!" Sydney would react, stung by my kindness to Taylor. "What about my smile, Momma?"
"I love your smile, Sydney," I used make the effort to reassure her, always shocked by the fact that they forget they have the exact same smiles.
"Then why did you only say it to Taylor?" she would continue to challenge.
I used to take the time to coddle them through their negative inferences. I used to worry that I would damage their self-esteem if I didn't praise them equally. I used to fall victim to their ploys for attention.
But then I realized that by placating the twin that was fishing for a second-hand compliment, I was negating the special intent of the original compliment paid to the first twin. So I have adopted a different approach:
"Sydney, when I told Taylor I liked her smile, was I talking to you or Taylor?" I now ask.
"Taylor," she admits, most often with shame because she’s been busted for attempting to steal the spot-light from her sister.
"That's right, I was talking to Taylor. So, was I thinking about Taylor's smile or your smile?"
"Taylor's," she says.
"That's right. When I give Taylor a compliment, it's not about you, Sydney. It's about Taylor. And you need to learn to be happy for sissy when someone says something nice to her, instead of being sad for yourself."
It's a tough love approach, that's for sure. But my daughters will be compared to each other their entire lives, and I don't want one to automatically feel bad every time her sister feels good. And when they merge in and out of social groups, hopefully this will teach them to be comfortable sharing the spotlight with their friends as well. Because at the end of the day, it's not all about Sydney or Taylor. And if they can understand and appreciate this lesson, then all of their relationships will benefit. Because not only will they learn to decipher a compliment from an insult, but they'll also be aware that there are consequences for what they do say and consequences for what they don't say.