I don’t know what it’s like to be a middle child (since I am an only). But my son Kieper does. He is sandwiched in between two brothers, two years in both directions.
My husband and I knew we would be moving from one-on-one to zone-defense parenting when we agreed to go for a third child. We also made a pact with each other that we would absolutely, positively not let our middle child slide into forgotten land.
That was until we hit the demands of real life that suddenly included a needy newborn and an older son with a busy extracurricular and sports schedule.
And, then there was Kieper, who went from sweet and easy to unpredictable and oppositional overnight. What had we done to him? Giving him another sibling seemed like such a good idea at the time.
My husband describes going from two to three kids as skiing way too fast downhill—as if you could wipe out at any minute.
I describe it as guilt times three.
Fearing Kieper may be stuck with an unenviable lot in life, I set out to unearth the mysteries of being nudged in the middle (and how birth order shapes our personalities).
First of all, professionals like to debate whether there is any merit at all to birth-order philosophy. Peter Stavinoha, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist who directs neuropsychology at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, says a child’s placement in his family is not something clinicians think about. “At best, birth order is just a drop in the bucket,” he asserts.
Stavinoha suggests that it is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A quick Google search of “middle child” reveals that parents and individuals sandwiched in between siblings are busy fulfilling something alright—and not in a good way.
Some of the descriptions I came across include: “emotionally scarring condition” in which the middles or “forgotten children” are stuck between the oldest (“most important child”) and youngest (“favorite child”). Middle-child behavior varies from creative to negative.
In short: The older child gets all the awards, the younger gets all the love and the middle gets nothing.
I THINK I SEE A PATTERN HERE …
The concept of birth order dates back to early in the 20th century when Alfred Adler, an Austrian medical doctor, psychologist and founder of the school of individual psychology (famous for identifying “inferiority complex”), emphasized that sibling placement influences the strengths and weaknesses of a child’s psychological make up.
Adler doled out cookbook recipes for each child: firstborn: most likely to suffer from neuroticism and addiction because of feelings of excessive responsibility and loss of a once pampered position; middle child: most likely to be successful (Adler, ahem, was a middle child), yet rebellious and squeezed out; youngest: overindulged and lacking social empathy.
It’s important to note that Adler never produced any scientific support for his interpretations.
Dr. Kevin Leman, an internationally recognized psychologist, proposes a modern-day spin on birth order. The New York Times bestselling author (who has appeared on talk shows such as Oprah and Good Morning Texas) recently re-released his popular tome, The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are. Leman maintains that whether you are born first, last or somewhere in between powerfully shapes the kind of person you are and how you relate to the world.
After studying birth order for 35 years, here is his take: firstborns (and onlies): reliable perfectionists; middles: loyal mavericks; youngest: charming manipulators.
As I mapped out my own three kids, their behavior seem to fall in line with both Adler and Leman: oldest: pleaser, overachiever, Type A, confident and responsible; middle: quirky, funny, loyal, defiant, sensitive and moody; youngest: sophisticated for his age, bossy, temperamental, affectionate, social and cute (did I mention, cute?).
I asked area moms about their own experiences with their children:
Laura Cisneros described her kids succinctly: firstborn: smart, very sensitive; middle: temperamental, tough; youngest: funny, spoiled.
While Elishea Jones, mother of five, had this to add: firstborn: very laid back, considerate, independent and hard working; second: athletic, organized, temperamental, sensitive and independent; third: high drama, emotional, talkative and loyal (currently homeschooling because she struggled in mainstream school); No. 4: high energy, strong willed, fearless, bossy, social; youngest: curious, sweet, easygoing, cute (there it is again).
I’m seeing a trend: Oldest is responsible, middle rebellious and youngest revered. It appears that there is something sticky about this birth order theory—even if only in the realm of pop science. After all, my husband and I are both fairly stereotypical for a firstborn and an only (probably the most challenging relationship combination, Leman is quick to point out).
The question is: How can we parent each birth order to the best of our ability (while dodging lasting psychological harm), especially in the dreaded middle position?
YOURS IS NOT BETTER THAN MINE
First of all, Leman, who is the youngest of three and father to five, explains that no birth order is “better” or more desirable than another. The way parents treat their children is as important as birth order.
In fact, in a warm, loving and accepting family environment, the middle child might have the least hang-ups of all.
Christina York, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in the Psychology Department at Cook Children’s Medical Center, says birth order is something she considers in context with several other factors, such as temperament and parent expectations, when evaluating a child.
But she assures that while middle children get a bad rap for being the “problem child,” they don’t suffer any more psychological issues than their siblings.
Figuring out your middle child can be tricky, however. But Leman says one thing is for sure: He will be the complete opposite of the firstborn, who will also become his role model (not the parents).
York says she can spot a middle child the minute one walks in the door.
“They have been dethroned as the baby and start to think that they need to be different” to garner attention, she says. “They are not first or exclusive—they lack ‘position’ in the family. And, parents don’t tend to do everything they did with the first child, like create photo books for every milestone.” And, Leman retorts, “No one ever asks the middle child, ‘what do you think, honey?’”
Kids notice these things.
As a result, middles tend to seek close friendships (no wonder Kieper is always asking for playdates). They are also often creative, great mediators and experts at give-and-take. Leman describes them as mentally tough and independent (and the least likely to seek psychological help later in life).
“Middle children are far less likely to be spoiled, and therefore they tend to be less frustrated and demanding of life,” offers Leman. “The typical hassles, irritation and disappointments of being a middle child are often blessings in disguise.”
He adds, “Don’t despair if you have a middle child who seems caught in the squeeze right now. Keep your middle child’s candle lit, and in the end he or she may shine brighter than the rest.”
It’s not all song and roses for the first and the last child either, notes York. Yes, the firstborn tends to be advanced and doted upon, but parents often hold high expectations for their firstborn and it can be difficult to live up to a constant state of perfection. All that attention can result in added responsibility and pressure. What firstborn hasn’t heard his parent say, “I don’t care what he did, you’re the oldest!”
And, the youngest (often affectionately nicknamed the “baby,” “little darling” or “class clown”) may adapt more of a laissez–faire attitude: “Why bother trying when everyone does everything for me?” Or, worse, feel as if nothing he does is important.
LOVE IS … WHAT I GOT
It really comes down to family dynamics and how parents approach their children regardless of birth order, stresses Stavinoha, who is also an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School.
Obviously there are limitations in parent resources in a larger family, he acknowledges. But, confronting the balancing act of multiple children is the first step, encourages York.
“Be aware that this is what can happen,” explains York. “Make sure each child gets just as much attention. Be fair and consistent with all of your children and make time to develop good communication skills, so that they feel safe letting you know if you are leaving them out.” The most important thing you can do? Spend one-on-one, quality time with each child during the week and help identify unique skills.
“Value each child. Reinforce things that they are good at. Praise them for supporting each other,” York counsels.
Surprisingly, Leman says you don’t have to treat your children the same. “What you do for one, you must do for all is a flat out lie,” he stresses.
Instead, he advises loving them equally and being consistent with discipline but relating to them differently. For instance, it’s OK to take your firstborn out with you and your spouse (they often relate better to adult company), give your middle child an exclusive privilege or read more to the youngest (who is less likely to love books).
NOT SO SIMPLE (OR MAYBE IT IS)
It’s also important to remember that birth order is not cut and dry. For instance, when there is an age difference of five to six years between children, effectively the birth order starts over, say Leman. Or, when the middle child is the only girl, she can often take on firstborn traits. Blended families can pose additional cross wires.
York also advises parents to think about their own birth order and how that might affect their parenting approach. We tend to identify most easily with the child that mirrors our spot in the pecking order.
Adds Leman, “This can lead to putting too much pressure on the child or spoiling or favoring the child. It’s important to keep this tendency in mind, so that you balance your reactions and responses to all of your children.”
Stavinoha maintains that temperament (not birth order) plays a larger role in personality development. Stavinoha is himself a “middle child”—born fifth out of six kids (and fourth of five boys).
By the time he came along, he says he could “get away with anything” and was “kind of left alone” by his parents who were seasoned vets—especially with boy behavior—at that point. But, he didn’t feel squeezed out or lost. “By nature I am achievement-oriented and thrived with that independence,” he shares.
As important as a child’s order of birth may be, it’s only one influence, admits Leman. “It’s not a final fact of life, forever set in cement and unchangeable, that determines how that child will turn out.”
Finally, I went straight to the source and asked my middle son how he felt about his unique rank. He looked at me with bewilderment (as if it was the first time he ever considered that he was in the middle or that it even should matter).
And then he simply said: “I like it, Mommy. I always have a friend.”