Today’s expert interview is with Christina Baglivi Tinglof, a mom of twins and author of Double Duty: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Twins. Our interview today focuses on the tricky topic of disciplining multiples!

L: At what age is it appropriate to begin using time-outs to discourage unwanted behaviors? Do you have any suggestions for executing a successful time-out, when there is another small child in the mix, (who will often join the offender in his time-out spot, of his own accord)?

C: For a time-out to be effective, a child should be no younger than two years of age. Children younger than two not only can’t sit still for any length of time but they simply can’t understand the reason for the time-out. Every family should fine tune their time-out technique to fit their parenting style as well as their children’s individual personalities, but there are a few helpful guidelines to make them more successful.

Limit the length of time to one minute for every year of age. (A two-year-old would receive a two-minute time-out, for example.) Choose an appropriate place, one that’s far enough away from the fun but close enough to supervise your child. And finally, make sure the time-out spot is free of distractions—no toys, TV, or talking allowed.

Parents needs to be on their toes when giving time-outs to twins, however, as more often than not, the “innocent” twin will come to the aid of the “naughty” twin by offering comfort, a toy, and sometimes even an escape route even if the “naughty” twin was responsible for hurting her cotwin! When you see the “innocent” twin about to interfere with her cotwin’s time-out (that’s why the time-out spot should be close enough to monitor), acknowledge what you think she is feeling but firmly remind her of the rules, and then give her an alternative. For instance, you can say, “I know you want to help your sister because she’s sad sitting by herself, but Jane is having a time-out because she hit you and hitting is not allowed. You may not disturb her. Why don’t you sit on the couch with me and we’ll read?”

L: Often there is a dominant twin, and one with a more passive temperament. How can parents discourage one from bullying the other? Is this behavior likely to become a permanent trend in their relationship?

C: They may share a birthday, but each twin like all other children have their own distinct personalities. And while one twin may possess a more passive disposition while his cotwin boasts a more dominant temperament, it’s not a “twin thing.” Personality is really based on the individual. Your twins’ behavior will change and evolve through the years, too, and how they are now may not be who they become in the future.

That said, however, many twins do take on dominant-passive roles. In the case of boy-girl twins, for instance, sometimes the girl overly “mothers” her co-twin brother. While it may seem cute when a female twin continually helps her brother get dressed or pour milk, parents need to step in before the dominant twin feels burdened or the passive twin feels he can’t do for himself. Try giving each twin a separate opportunity to make a family decision (“Which video should we watch tonight?”), or to take on a small responsibility (“Why don’t you hold the shopping list for Mommy when we go in the store?”) as it helps teach self reliance.

Next, work on building confidence in the passive twin by helping him find an activity where he can shine on his own, separate from his cotwin. Enrolling him in a martial arts class can help build self-esteem. Separate pre-school classrooms can help here as well. And finally, encourage each child to take responsibility for himself. For instance, give each child his own milk money for school even though you may feel the dominant child is more responsible.

L: Most MoMs will have to deal with the biting issue at some point. What is the proper way to handle it?

C: Biting is one of the most common (and frustrating) problems when it comes to parenting toddler twins, so it’s important for parents to try and stop the problem before it turns into a habit. Try to access why your twin is biting. Some twins, for instance, bite when they’re teething as it relieves their sore gums. If this is the case, parents should offer their toddler a frozen teething ring during playtime. If, however, a toddler bites out of frustration, take a firm but loving approach by getting down to the biter’s level and calmly saying, “No biting allowed. Biting hurts.” Then turn all your attention to comforting the victim.

But parents need to watch their behavior too. Eliminate “love bites,” those little nibbles we find irresistible when diapering our twins, as they can quickly confuse young twins into thinking that biting is fun.

Remember, biting is a normal stage that many children go through and they will outgrow it.

L: Competition is a normal part of all sibling relationships, but even more so with multiples. At what point do you consider it unhealthy, and what actions do you recommend parents take in response?

C: You’re right. A moderate amount of competition is actually healthy for sibling relationships as it teaches children how to compromise and cooperate. Furthermore, trying to eliminate sibling rivalry is counterproductive as it will not disappear as we hope but just fester beneath the surface sure to explode at some point later down the road. Instead, parents should stay on the sidelines when their children squabble rather than rescuing one child or intervening with an opinion.

Allow your children to work out their differences on their own. But if the arguing turns physical or the name calling escalates, parents should step in by separating the pair until they can calm down and come up with an agreeable solution to their problem.

Much of twin rivalry can be eliminated by avoiding comparisons between twins. Although parents mean no harm when they compare the two (“John is a much better speller than his co-twin Steve but Steve is a much better baseball player”), it sends a message to their twins that one is better than the other.

Parents should keep their observations to each individual (“Great job on the spelling test Steve!”), never bringing a cotwin into the picture. Parents need to watch when one twin continually opts out of an activity where he used to show enthusiasm or constantly compares himself to his co-twin as that’s usually a sign that their rivalry may have reached an unhealthy level. Try to stress the value of the process of achieving or the effort rather than the end result.

L: Should both twins (or triplets, quads, etc) be subjected to the same exact rules, and privileges, with regards to bedtime, chores, being allowed to participate in activities, etc.? Are there any exceptions?

C: You’ve touched on a very interesting topic! When twins are young, it’s a no-brainer—same bedtime for sure! Otherwise, you’ll never have any peace. But as they get older, bedtime becomes more of a slippery slope. Overall, the goal is to parent based on need, not on what your twins think is “fair.” So if one twin is overly tired and needs some extra shuteye, he should go to bed regardless of when his cotwin heads to bed.

Discipline is another area where parents of twins need to tread carefully. Parents should never take away a privilege from both twins if only one twin broke a rule, for instance. And never give into pressure from one twin to dismiss a naughty deed of another twin. (“Can’t Sue please come out of her room? I have no one to play with!” is a common ploy.) Although it’s important for all children to participate in household chores, rather than having them complete the same task together, assign different chores to your twins as it teaches independence. Parents can make a chore chart where twins can change jobs each week. One child sets the table while the other feeds the dog, for instance, and then the following week, they switch.

And finally, when it comes to hobbies and sports, it’s best to let your twins guide you in the activities they’d like to pursue. Although that means that Mom or Dad essentially becomes a taxi driver, shuttling the kids to various sports fields, it doesn’t seem fair to make both play soccer, for instance, when maybe only one twin has the desire.

L: Do you have any tips for how to curb the bickering/fighting over toys?

C: Lots of parents swear by the two-toy rule, buying two of each toy for their twins. Some have a variation on this theme by buying slightly different models giving the appearance of two different toys. While two of the same item does cut down on the squabbling it can get very expensive and takes up way too much room. Besides, just like every other child, twins need to learn the art of compromise and how to share.

On the other hand, it’s never a good idea to buy just one “big-ticket item” such as a tricycle and expect twins to share as it’s hard for a two-year-old to wait patiently while his sister is taking a turn around the driveway on a shiny, new trike. Yet there are lots of big toys out there that twins can share easily with little squabbling. Just make sure there’s enough elbow room for both twins to play at the same time. For example, two good options are a double-sided easel or extra large playhouse.

In teaching your twins to share toys, positive reinforcement works best. Play sharing games with your toddlers. For instance, sit in a circle and roll a ball or truck to one child, then say, “Nancy’s turn,” and watch your child roll the toy to Nancy. Loudly praise the child for sharing, and encourage Nancy to roll the toy to someone else. Or, ask to hug your child’s favorite stuffed animal. When she agrees, hug and kiss the animal, give it back to your child and thank her for “sharing.”

L: What is the appropriate manner in which to handle a “multiple meltdown” in public? What if you are the only adult?

C: You can diminish “multiple meltdowns” by taking a few precautions before stepping out the door such as making sure your toddler twins are well fed and rested as many tantrums are brought on by tired, hungry kids. (Yet moms should always keep a supply of snacks with her just in case.) Another precaution to try is the “five minute warning” where you alert you toddlers that they have a limited amount of time left to play. The thinking here is that timely reminders help little ones slowly transition and adjust to leaving.

Yet no matter how well you prepare, public tantrums are just part of the parenting package. When they do happen, don’t worry about the people around you, they’ll get over it. If the tantrum is a small one, sometimes ignoring it or quickly diverting your child’s attention to something else does the trick. Don’t try to reason with your child. Not only is a toddler too young to understand but it may just make your twin madder! If neither ignoring nor redirecting works, breathe deeply and say to yourself, “I can handle this.” Focus on keeping your kids safe while maintaining your composure. This is especially important when you’re out and about with two toddlers—the twin who is calm can easily slip away while your attention is on his hysterical cotwin. If you have a double stroller, strap each child in his seat and whisk them away to a quiet area whether in another part of the store or even outside until the tantrum passes.

L: For those of us with younger multiples.. what kinds of behavioral issues are we likely to face in the preschool and school age years? Is there anything parents can do to prepare for these issues?

C: The school years bring on a whole host of new challenges for parents with multiples. School-age twins may have outgrown the toy tantrums but other issues may surface as they begin their quest for autonomy. Competition between the pair usually is greater during this time, too. Their rivalry, friendly or otherwise, can appear in the classroom or on the sports field. Take school work, for instance. Since twins share the same grade, they often have the same homework regardless of whether they’re in the same class. For some twins, it’s a race to the finish with no regard for neatness or accuracy, just as long as they finish first. One way to curb that desire is to have them each start on different assignments—one works on math while the other works on reading. Or have your twins complete their homework in separate areas—one in the kitchen, the other in the den.

Differences in ability begin to show up during the school years as well. If one twin is struggling while his cotwin is excelling, separate classrooms often help as each child is then free to progress at his own speed without the fear of comparisons from both the teacher and fellow students.