Multiple Matters (Winter 2014/5): Chalk and Cheese – how much are you really to blame for how your children turn out?!

An edited version of the following piece appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of Multiple Matters, a UK based twins and multiple births magazine. 

Our boys were born only moments apart and have been raised in the same environment by the same parents but they could not be more different.

20140511_123044The “nature vs nurture” debate is one of the oldest in psychology. Some philosophers suggest certain things are inborn, or that they simply occur naturally regardless of environmental influences. Others suggest that we are born a “blank slate” and everything we are and all of our knowledge is determined by our experience.

Experts on birth order tell us we are different parents to each of our children and our different parenting styles can influence children’s personalities.  I find this theory easy to believe. With almost four years’ parenting experience I was a much more relaxed and competent parent to baby number four than to baby number one. But my first two babies were twins, boys born only 25 minutes apart (although being tethered to bed, legs akimbo in front of swing doors next to the supplies cupboard with a steady stream of orderlies and student doctors coming and going  it did seem much longer!) so I am confident we were the same incompetent, ill-prepared and inadequate parents to babies one and two yet they are so different we have nicknamed them Chalk and Cheese.

At birth, Chalk was small. He arrived into the world with a tiny squeak and slept his way through his first 48 hours in special care, never making a sound. Cheese was born robust, even by singleton standards, and had a fine pair of lungs he was unafraid to use.  Once Chalk was out of special care and had had his gastro-nasal tube removed, he took to breastfeeding like he was, well, born to it.  Cheese was not so keen and for six weeks would only take his breast milk from a bottle. Chalk was always a quiet, self-soother sleeping through the night for the first time at about eight weeks old. He is now ten and you can count on one hand how many times he has woken in the night since he was two months old.  Cheese, on the other hand, was an exhausting baby who didn’t need sleep anyway near as much as his depleted parents. My husband and I spent many hours walking the streets in our neighbourhood between midnight and 4am, trying to soothe a fractious baby whilst allowing the other parent to snatch some much needed sleep.  We would spend hours rocking Cheese to sleep only to have him wake and start yelling immediately he sensed we were trying to lower him to a mattress.  After nine months we started some fairly brutal sleep training. The books promised our little angel would be self-soothing and sleeping a ten hour stretch within three days.   We followed the instructions to the letter but Cheese continued to be a devil-child for weeks and finally only started sleeping for one four hour stretch after six weeks of SAS style sleep training.  At age ten he is still a very early riser and prone to night time wanderings. Luckily his night time awakenings are no longer accompanied by screams loud enough to break glass so we accept this is part of his nature and use the sleep training manual to prop up a table with a wobbly leg.

Baby number three was born when the boys were just two and one of the twins had to relinquish his spot in the double buggy to make room for the new addition. Cheese couldn’t wait to jump out and run around, eager to be rid of the safety harnesses that had curtailed his freedom for so long. He never spent another moment in a stroller. Baby number four arrived, just before the twins’ fourth birthday so it was time for Chalk to give up the buggy once and for all.   He was not keen and still maintains to this day that we made him walk for miles before he was ready and we have done serious physiological and psychological damage from which he might never recover. If he had his way we would still be pushing him round in a wheelbarrow.

Chalk is bookish, reserved, introverted and loves his own company.  His heroes are Albert Einstein and Bill Gates. Cheese is a sporty, outgoing extrovert who can’t bear to be alone. He worships Usain Bolt and Lionel Messi.  The main source of all conflict in our house over the years has been when Chalk has been playing quietly by himself, spending hours building a complicated Lego tower and Cheese has been begging him to come outside to play football. As Chalk constantly ignored Cheese’s entreaties, Cheese would eventually knock over the Lego tower to gain some attention.  Many fights have ensued.

At sports and swimming carnivals, Cheese enters every race possible and tackles each one with focus and determination. Chalk enters the minimum one event and is usually so engrossed in a book when his race is called that he misses the event all together and shows no remorse, glad that the ordeal is over and he can retreat to the solace of his book without fear of further disturbance.

From day one, I have (mis)treated them both the same. They arrived within moments of each other and have lived in the same household with the same trainee parents. I cut my parenting teeth on them, gave them the same opportunities, loved them both the same and yet they couldn’t be more different. I will continue to do my best to raise them to be good people with a well-developed sense of integrity, humility and compassion but I fully accept they came to us with a certain amount of pre-programming and for that I give thanks because, however they turn out, I know it will not be entirely my fault.

This anecdote beautifully illustrates the similarities and differences between our four who we are trying to raise to share the same values:

Zach had his  friend, Emile, over for a playdate recently.  After dinner, the children asked if they could have ice-creams. I said yes but warned that there were five children and we only had a box of four ice creams  so there was a problem to solve first. My four set about offering their own solution, each one reflective of their age and personality:

Zach, aged 6: “Emile is my friend so he can share my ice-cream.”

Katie, aged 8: “That’s not fair on you Zach we can all share a little bit. If we each chop off the end of our ice-cream that will make five servings.”

Ben (Cheese) aged 10, was able to help with the maths of Katie’s solution and brought a ruler to the table: “OK, five children, four ice creams so everyone gets four fifths of one ice-cream. We need to cut one fifth from the end of each ice-cream and then we will have five equal servings.”

Matthew (Chalk) aged 10, has a very highly developed sense of logic but often it comes at the expense of empathy.  In front of our guest he offered his far simpler solution: “Why don’t we just wait until Emile has gone home and then have the ice creams?”

See, it’s not your fault, they are just made differently.

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