To separate, or not to separate, that is the question … If you’re a parent of multiples, you’ll likely find yourself deliberating over this quandary when your multiples reach school age. And as with every parenting decision, you’ll find a variety of opinions on the matter—and even some policies standing in your way. What’s a (multiples) parent to do?
We found ourselves face-to-face with this decision last year as we prepared to send the Tagalongs to preschool after three years of in-home care with me. While we seriously considered all angles of this question, the answer was really a no-brainer for us: separate them. What made us part of the separate them camp? Read on to find out and receive tips to apply when your own time comes to make this decision.
We asked our potential school for its policy.
“What is your philosophy on whether to separate or keep multiples together?” was one of the first questions we asked the Tagalongs’ prospective preschool. While we already had an idea of what we wanted before we started researching preschools, we first needed to know whether a school would make the decision for us.
For years, educators have endorsed separating multiples, citing opportunity for individualized growth and development as the impetus. Some school districts have policies—written and unwritten—that mandate the separation of multiples as early as kindergarten. I even know of triplet moms who have come across daycares and preschools that uphold such rules as well. Interestingly, there really is no research that provides hard evidence in favor of separation—but that’s another discussion. While we were leaning in a particular direction regarding separation, we still wanted to be part of a school that was more progressive in its thinking and gave multiples parents autonomy over their decision.
The preschool we ended up choosing fit that mold. While the Tagalongs were the first set of triplets to walk the school’s halls, the school was no stranger to twins and had a practice of observing parents’ wishes to either separate or keep together their multiples. “What is your preference?” the director asked us when we toured the grounds, proceeding to listen earnestly as we described what we were seeing at home. She even described the two teachers and noted which teacher we thought would be best suited to our separation preference. On the first day of school, James walked into a classroom with no-nonsense, dry-humored Miss Laura and grandmotherly Miss Judy, while Caleb and Danae rushed into the warm, enthusiastic, and sunny care of Miss Emily (later Miss Lauren) and Miss Kathi.
- Look into whether your school / district has a policy on how to place multiples in the classroom. According to this blog post on Verywell Family, as of 2018, 14 states in the United States have “twin laws” in favor of parental preference in effect, while around 11 more states have similar laws pending approval or review.
- If your school / district doesn’t have a stated policy, ask the administrator anyways. You’ll want to make sure an “unspoken” policy doesn’t exist as well as learn the administrator’s philosophy and get a feel for whether the school is a good fit for you.
- Ask a follow-up question: “In the event that our decision to separate or keep together our multiples does not work, what options are available to us?” We posed this question to the preschool director in our initial conversation about our preference for separating the Tagalongs, and she assured us that we would be able to place the kids back together. This, however, was not a promise she would keep later in the year when we requested that the Tagalongs be placed back together in James’s class due to issues we had with the teaching style and classroom management displayed in Caleb and Danae’s classroom. “I’m sorry,” the director told us apologetically. “There are no openings in that classroom.”
- Have a backup plan—and perhaps a backup school or two—in place in the event that you are not able to separate or move your multiples into the same classroom later in the year. When the preschool director denied our request (understandably), we suddenly found ourselves scrambling to decide what would be best for the Tagalongs and our family: stick it out through the remainder of the year, move Caleb and Danae to a different preschool, or move all three kids to a different preschool. We ultimately decided to stick it out, but the week it took to make that decision was a stressful one—and the last thing multiples parents need is more stress!
We looked at our kids as individuals.
We made our decision to separate and how to separate based on observations we made as I incorporated more “academic” learning into our daily activities and the Tagalongs became more active in social settings (i.e., playgroups, library story time, and parks and rec classes). “At least your kids are all on the same plane learning-wise,” a preschool friend’s mom told me as we swapped “war stories” of trying to incorporate learning activities into the short hours between pickup and bedtime and busy weekend schedules. It’s a common misconception outside (and sometimes inside!) the multiples community that multiples develop at the same pace and learn in the same ways. Because multiples are often treated as a pair or group, people forget that they are individual kids with unique personalities and learning styles.
James is quick to pick up on concepts, often after only an introduction to the topic. Over time, Caleb and Danae started deferring to him to answer questions or demonstrate how to do something. But when we left the classroom, so to speak, it was another story. Caleb and Danae were social butterflies who interacted with and played with other kids and adults, while James was content to play by himself or with just his siblings. Even more, each child displayed a different learning style: James learns by studying and tinkering with things, Caleb is a visual learner who needs to see and tactilely experience a concept, and Danae connects best through an artistic approach. Three individual kids, three unique approaches.
As the Tagalongs inched closer and closer to school age and an opportunity to enroll them in a formal academic setting presented itself, Chris and I considered what we were seeing and what we wanted for the kids. Ultimately, we wanted Caleb and Danae to engage more academically and James to branch out more socially and make his own friends. We felt that neither could be accomplished with the kids to act as crutches for one another.
- Consider your multiples from a variety of angles. Are there differences in abilities? How do their learning styles and personalities align with the teaching styles and personalities available? Is one more dominant than the other(s)? Are they competitive with one another, or do they depend on one another? Do they distract each other, their classmates, or their teacher(s)?
- Determine your “goal” for the school year. We walked into last school year (and now the upcoming one) with two very distinct goals in mind. Your goal might be simpler or more complicated. Which best serves that goal: keeping your multiples together or separating them?
We considered the rebuttal.
While we were 100% firm in our decision to separate the Tagalongs, the thought of doing so, and so early in their schooling, was a hard pill to swallow. And it’s this idea that I saw fellow triplet moms in my social media group struggle with the most as their own trios approached school age.
Many of our triplets had been never really been separated. In most cases, they’d been crammed in utero together, laid side-by-side in NICU together, gone home together or within days of one another, slept (or not slept, as the case was with Caleb) in the same room together, played next to each other at home in a carefully cordoned-off play area, attended doctor’s appointments and EI visits and library story times together, celebrated carefully themed birthday parties together, and rode in that damn Radio Flyer Triple Wagon until all their limbs were poking out of it askew. As much as our triplets are distinct individuals, they’re still a pack, and us mama ducks have a hard time letting our ducklings go out into the world on their own all at freaking once—and in different directions.
“They’ll have separation forced on them enough as they get older,” I saw several friends argue. “We’re keeping them together as long as we can.” Chris and I understood that line of reasoning, and part of us even agreed with it. But most of Chris and I knew that separating the Tagalongs was what would be best for them and our family in the long run.
- Reflect on and discuss with your partner how both of you feel about whether to separate or keep together your multiples. What’s driving your opinions? What channels, if any, are contributing? If you’re on different ends of the spectrum, can you reach a compromise both of you feel comfortable with?
- Ask your multiples how they feel. They might surprise you and have an opinion—even at the young age of three or four. And in asking them, consider what you’re communicating to them: they have a voice that is heard, an opinion that is valued, and (limited) agency over their day-to-day.
- Problem-solve to counterbalance the decision you make. Beginning around age 2, we started enrolling the Tagalongs in their own parks and rec classes. While we did so more based on their individual interests, we also feel that this unintentionally helped prepare them for being on their own in a more structured environment. At the same time, we’ve made it a point to do activities together as a family on the weekends so that we’re regrouping as a unit. And when one of the Tagalongs has trouble being separated, we help them work through their feelings and find ways for the other(s) to provide comfort. How can you help your multiples and you adjust to being separated or kept together?
While we’ve separated the Tagalongs the last two years, we’ve re-evaluated our decision at the beginning of each school year. This might be the best decision for us and them right now, but it might not be a good choice at some point in the future. We won’t know until we get there, but you can bet we’ll insist on the right to choose when we do.
Has your family been through this situation, and what did you ultimately decide? If you’re facing this dilemma right now, what other questions do you have for us? Drop your thoughts and questions below in the comments to continue this conversation.