Toddler Thursday: Relating to Other Siblings

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I dreamed of my three girls playing together as I incubated my twins, conjuring images of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. They would join their big sister and embark on a lifetime of adventures in adorable rompers. I took notice of sisters at the park, studying their bonds and dreaming of how close-knit my girls would be. Shortly after the twins were born, I found myself pregnant again, and gave birth to another girl. A houseful of ladies. Feelings. Hormones. Hairbrushes.

Though we have four children, we have no middle child, and that has made a big difference in how they relate to one another. Hailey and Robin, our identical twin girls, have such a unique, close relationship with each other that they don’t fit the typical description of a neglected middle child. There isn’t (yet) much competition between the girls, and so their accomplishments are celebrated by their siblings as though they are all teammates. They also coalesce in relative harmony by fulfilling roles that have developed organically.


I could tell in the months after the twins were born that my oldest desperately needed a role, a more solid identity. Her family became a five-some and the twin babies were a novelty to every guest who visited. She quickly became the leader. As the twins grew, began talking and moving, big sister was there to guide the play, teach them new tricks and show them boundaries. She may have delighted in kicking them out of her bedroom a little too fervently, but she found her stride as the leader.

When the youngest girl was born, Hailey and Robin were still too young to grasp the concept, but our oldest found a comrade in arms. Her role as leader and the baby’s role as the ‘other singleton’ fused a bond that rivals the twins. Big sister and littlest sister have become two peas in a pod, leaving Hailey and Robin to happily continue forging their special twin connection.


Our twin girls share a closeness far deeper than a sister connection. I’m sure as the girls grow, the singletons will experience feeling left out of that special closeness. Like every tribulation in parenting, we’ll tackle that when it arises using empathy and respect. Most of the time, our daily (mis)adventures are a scene of four girls, not divided into teams, but united as a foursome.

We have tried to let the oldest be the leader, because the younger ones delight in idolizing her, and falling into line under her command. We might let the baby get away with more (we’re exhausted after just going through it all with twins, for goodness’ sakes!), but her big sisters seem to enjoy doting on her as well. The twins continue to attract attention wherever we go, and their sisters are there to put them on display and chat to interested observers.

I’m not sure to what I should credit the closeness between these four girls, but I suppose that is part of the magic to sibling relationships, isn’t it?

SarahNSarah is the mother to four girls, two of whom are identical twins Hailey and Robin. They were born in the Yukon in a very small hospital at 35 weeks, and though they were small, they were mighty. She now lives in Ontario, where her high school sweetheart husband works very hard, and she stays home with the girls, freelance reporting on the side. In her past life, she was a journalist who covered everything from fast-paced federal politics to cats stuck in trees. Her writing has appeared in local newspapers and magazines, and in national publications like the Globe and Mail and ParentsCanada Magazine. She is a yogi, a mediocre cook, an awesome Beyonce dance move imitator, and an avid blogger at Cure for Boredom.

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From the Archives: Multiples and Birth Order

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Parents of twins talk about the role of birth order in their children's dynamic and how others perceive them. From

ABonesieSome parents of multiples proudly discuss their children’s birth order, even engraving their A and B birth status into their names. Others go to great lengths to avoid telling anyone which child was born first. For some the decision is personal, for others it is a cultural norm, and for yet others, there’s no decision to be made because they never really thought about it.

These are some post where The Moms have pondered matters of birth order over the years:

  • The Mystery of Multiples and Birth Order:  talks about our cultural assumptions of the effect of birth order on family dynamics and wonders about varying perspectives from MoMs.
  • Differentiating Between Multiples:  found herself labeling her twin daughters as “big” and “little” and gained some empathy with those outsiders who feel the need to label our children in opposition to one another.
  • Which Came First has grown increasingly bothered by strangers insisting on knowing her twins’ birth order.
  • “Afu ge ge”, “Leila mei mei” doesn’t want to emphasize which of her twins is “older,” but it’s unavoidable in China.
  • Multiples and Age Hierarchy refusal to tell people which of my daughters was born first messes with my Bangladeshi family’s hierarchical view of the world.
  • And the Older One Is … girls surprise me when I can no longer avoid telling them who was born first.
  • Birthday(s) for Two tell one daughter what time she was born, necessitating a discussion with both my daughters. I remind the girls that they’re the same age from conception and that womb eviction doesn’t make J any older than M.
  • Who’s Older?  believes that birth order plays a role in personality development, but not for multiples. What happens when twins are born 87 days apart? Clearly, they’re still twins, but are they the same age?

Do your kids display traits related to birth order? Do you see birth order as applicable to multiples?

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And the Older One Is …

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J was pulled out of my body a full 2 minutes before her sister M, because it was her amniotic sac that had ruptured while M’s remained intact.

I didn’t tell the girls their birth order for 6 years. When people asked them who was older–why is that no one ever asks who is younger?–they’d simply say, “We’re same age sisters. We’re twins. No one’s older.”

Not every curious stranger was satisfied with this answer, although it did stop the majority of them from pushing for a definitive response. Interrogated further, I had a canned answer for my inquisitors:

I’ve avoided telling the girls who was born first, because people automatically assign birth order stereotypes to children. They expect the older one to be more mature, more responsible, sometimes even smarter. That makes sense, I suppose, for kids born at different times. I know from my own experience that being an older sibling makes you grow up and take responsibility. My children are the same age as one another. The random order in which they were removed–by C-section, mind you–from my womb shouldn’t dictate how people see them. They’ve got enough stereotypes to contend with being identical twins.

One response to my spiel got my then-husband’s blood pounding. This friend of a friend said something along the lines of, “That’s stupid. Why would anyone assign birth order stereotypes to multiples?” The girls’ dad whispered in my ear, “I dunno. Why would anyone ask what order they were born in? That’s stupid too.”

For 6 years, cute innocent answers from little girls and canned responses from mommy kept me from needing to tell M and J who had been born first. They did refer to each other as “big sister” and “little sister,” based on height differences. My daughter M tells me that the trick to telling apart the 3 sets of identical twins split between her class and J’s is that, “the shorties are all in my class.”

One day, though, my Grand Plan for Birth Order Question Response stopped working. I was distracted, filling out paperwork in a waiting room, while several garrulous women pushed J and M for an answer on who was older. I heard J say, “She’s older,” and turned to see her pointing at M.

“No,” I told her firmly. “You’re the same age. J, you came out of my belly first.”

I thought this was the beginning of the end. All the birth order stereotypes of the universe were going to descend on my daughters and smother them.

Two days later, the question came again: “Who’s older?”

J’s answered floored me: “I came out first, but we’re the same age.”

As in most matters of parenting, I needn’t have worried so much.

Do your multiples know their birth order? Are their personalities typical of the older child/younger child dynamic?


Sadia overthinks her parenting decisions in Austin, TX, where she takes a break from single mommyhood by going to her full time job in higher education information technology.

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Multiples and Age Hierarchy

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My ex-husband and I decided early on not to tell the girls who was born first, because we thought that introducing an older-younger sibling dynamic to our twins’ relationship wouldn’t be healthy. Reanbean has written on this topic on HDYDI before.

Bangladesh is so tiny as to be nearly invisible on the world map.My family hails from Bangladesh, a tiny country in South Asia, surrounded on three sides by India, and on the other by the Indian Ocean. The culture is a very hierarchical one, and birth order is of great significance. Our having twins seriously messes with that hierarchy. I have a cousin living in Missouri who 9-year-old son is constantly perplexed by how to fit his twin cousins into the family hierarchy. He pesters me relentlessly to tell him who is older, to which I consistently respond, “They’re the same age.”

His question is a practical one. Kinship terms in Bengali hang on birth order. A paternal uncle who is older than your father is your Chacha; one who is younger is a Kaka. A younger sibling calls an older brother or male cousin Bhaiya, while the older sibling just uses the younger’s name. The female older sibling term is Apa. I recently learned that I’ve been committing a major faux pas by calling my brother-in-law Dula Bhai. Since he’s married to my younger sister, I should refer to him by name even though I’m younger than he is.

My refusal to label my daughters as older and younger has really messed with the family order on the Bangladeshi side. I feel for my cousin’s son and his confusion. I’ve been calling my brother-in-law the wrong thing for 3 years now.

Not long ago, I found myself unable to deflect the birth order question. I’ll tell you how it went another day. The result wasn’t the one I’d expected.


Sadia is a single mom of 6-year-old monozygotic girls living in Central Texas.

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"Afu ge ge", "Leila mei mei"

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“Which twin is older?” The question is absurd. In China, I get it all the time. And it works me up.
“They are twins. They are the same age.” I reply, irritated.
“Yes, but they didn’t both come out at the same time, did they? One had to have been born first.”
They insist, “Is she the older sister or is he the older brother?”
“But they were born minutes apart. What’s the big deal?!”

In Chinese there are no words for sister or brother; only for older brother “ge ge”, younger brother “di di”, older sister “jie jie”, and younger sister “mei mei.”

I don’t want to impose birth-order stereotypes on L and R; they are born 7 minutes apart. When L joined us at home, 3 weeks after R, Maher and I both unintentionally spoke to Rahul referring to Leila as his little sister. It was more in the sense of endearment and physical size than of age. But we quickly realized that it was untrue, and imagined implications of such labeling. We stopped.

When we returned to Chengdu from Hong Kong 5 months after the birth, our ayi (nanny) would tell R, “Look, Leila mei mei is sleeping. Why don’t you sleep as well?” I was upset. Drop the comparison, that issue is for another post. I firmly asked the people close to us – ayi’s (nannies), Chinese friends – not to use ge ge and mei mei; but to refer to Rahul and Leila as Rahul and Leila. Initially, they considered my request strange. I was interfering with cultural norms and habits. I insisted. They complied, at first with an uncomfortable smile, and probably a thought of how the lao wai (foreigners) always do things strangely. Now, they don’t hesitate. I’ve heard our ayi herself telling people in the street – “How can one be older? They are twins.” And if pushed she says, “I don’t know who was born first,” and then she looks at me to save her from the situation!

From what I remember of my Social Psychology 101 class, and various family talks, the oldest child is more responsible, self-motivated, and more dutiful, the middle child struggles for attention, and the youngest child is light-hearted, sometimes babied. It’s not as “straightforward” as that in reality, and certainly not in our household. I hope R doesn’t turn around one day and say a silly thing like, “That’s the way it goes because I am your older brother,” or someone guilt trips him with, “but she’s your little sister.”

When we go downstairs to play with the other kids in the complex, mums often tell their children, “You are her older brother. Let her play with your toy.” In China today, it’s rare that a child has a brother or a sister; so mum is usually referring to her child’s playmate. L and R may not know any of their friend’s names, but they know who is older and who is younger than them.

About half a year ago, R surprised me when he pointed at himself and said, “Afu, ge ge”. (R calls himself Afu. It’s his Sichuanese name.)  In another incident, a mum of a two year old girl asked me if L is a jie jie or a mei mei. Before I could say anything, L pointed at herself and replied proudly, “Leila, mei mei.”

L and R were obviously beginning to understand what people say. I realized that unless they use the words describing their relationships, they won’t be able to refer to their friends or themselves in an understandable, and respectable manner.

I am impressed that they know the words, and maybe the meaning. I don’t think they understand what the words imply in relation to each other, but they know that’s who they are.

A few weeks ago, a pair of 22 year old identical Chinese twin girls automatically introduced themselves to me as older sister and younger sister. When I dug deeper, probed them on whether they actually feel like one is older and if they live by that, “not really,” older sister replied, “At home we call each other by name. It is just for others that we use mei mei and jie jie.”

Other than it being a naming issue, it is a cultural one. We live in China, L and R were born in HK, and speak Chinese, so it only makes sense that they follow the social and cultural norms when engaging in society here. Now, when people in the street ask me the question, I answer straight up, R ge ge and L mei mei. Still some days, when I am in a feisty mood, I refuse to answer.

At home, with ayi’s and friends, we stick to L and R.

How do you answer the question, “Which twin is older?” If you have older twins or multiples, what are their thoughts on this?


Natasha, mum of Leila and Rahul was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher until her little yogis became the teachers. You can find more of her thoughts and stories at Our Little Yogis.


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