If you think it's hard to tell actor Richard Thomas' triplet daughters apart, asking one of them for help would simply add to the confusion. Well, maybe not now, but until a few months ago the three toddlers—Barbara, Gwyneth and Pilar—did not seem able to distinguish among themselves. "If you asked 'Where's Barbara?' they would point randomly at each other," says Dad. "I'm sure that was because it was the easiest name to say."

The identical trio now have it straight, just in time to celebrate their second birthday this week on Aug. 26. Present to party will be big brother Richard Francisco, 7, mom Alma and a score of family and friends. Dad, unhappily, will be working in England, where he's making The Master of Ballantrae, a three-hour CBS movie based on the Robert Louis Stevenson novel set in the 18th century.

It's an unusual separation for Thomas, who is very much a full-time father. "I do everything—change diapers, grocery shop, cook. I am not the befuddled, helpless onlooker," Richard says. He also becomes family disciplinarian on occasion. "When they wake up at night, I am the one who goes to their room because my voice is sterner."

Having triplets in the household requires a team effort. Big brother Richard—he calls them "my girls" and, in baby talk, they call him "Ushu"—totes them out of bed after naps. Lety Castellon, 26, lives with the Thomases in their Spanish-style Hollywood Hills home as resident big sister to the children and assistant to Alma. Alma's mom, Minnie ("Grandma Nini" to the tots), is solid backup since she lives in nearby East Los Angeles. And Alma is calmness personified as well as an expert in logistics. She packs three of everything and keeps a full box of diapers in each of the family's three cars.

Logistics aside, raising their triplets offers the Thomases a rare glimpse at child development that few parents ever get to see. The girls "discipline, police, threaten and tell on each other," Alma notes. Moreover the three, who were born at one-minute intervals, have walked, talked and matured in order of their birth. Barbara leads the way, followed by Gwyneth and Pilar. They take turns being moody and feel disoriented when one is away from the others. "If I yell at one, the other two will also cry," says Richard.

While their parents have treated them as individuals since birth, seeing them that way has only become easier lately. Firstborn Barbara is the leader and most aggressive in all the kids' activities. Gwyneth, the smallest at birth (she still carries the nickname "Mouse"), is an independent pixie and the most practical of the three. Pilar (or Pili) is still the baby, tending to cry more easily and often, less secure about going to sleep in her own bed.

Thanks to Alma, who is of Mexican descent, and Richard, who spent some childhood years in Cuba, where his parents toured as dancers, the girls are learning to be bilingual in Spanish and English. "Ven aquí " (come here) brings a patter of little feet.

Richard says he and Alma don't want to treat their little girls as a "special phenomenon." The Thomases know the triplets will discover the uniqueness of their situation soon enough on their own. "This experience is all theirs," he says. "They're just leading us through it. They're a club, a very exclusive little club."