Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama bids farewell to the public after he is presented with the Amnesty International's Shine a Light Award at the Carpenter Performing Arts Theatre of the Long Beach State University, California May 4, 2011. (ALEX GALLARDO/ALEX GALLARDO/REUTERS)
Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama bids farewell to the public after he is presented with the Amnesty International's Shine a Light Award at the Carpenter Performing Arts Theatre of the Long Beach State University, California May 4, 2011. (ALEX GALLARDO/ALEX GALLARDO/REUTERS)

Being middle child isn't so bad Add to ...

"Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!" Breaking the perpetually perky mood of 1970s TV family The Brady Bunch, middle sister Jan erupted in jealous outbursts about the attention that went to her pretty, accomplished, apparently perfect older sister, Marcia.

But the assumption that middle-born children are bitter or unambitious is knocked off its pillar in psychologist Catherine Salmon and journalist Katrin Schumann's new book, The Secret Power of Middle Children.

About 40 per cent of U.S. families have kids born between the eldest and the "baby" (although the authors note that family blending, deaths and disabilities, among other factors, can shift birth-order status in the course of a childhood). So the authors were surprised to find there had not been much prior research on the subject.

In the book, Dr. Salmon and Ms. Schumann dig into the evidence from evolutionary psychology, sociology and communications and find that many middle children emerge from childhood equipped with sharp skills in negotiation, compromise and empathy.

Like Bill Gates, Madonna, the Dalai Lama and other middle-born heavyweights, middle children can prosper by overcoming any childhood feelings of neglect and playing to their strengths.

Dr. Salmon suggests some strategies for middle children that would have Marcia Brady yelling, "Jan, Jan, Jan!"

Middle children often get a bad rap. How are they stereotyped by society and the media?

If you look at the way they tend to be portrayed in television shows, like The Brady Brunch with Jan - she clearly has issues being the middle sister, and is a little bit resentful of her older sister and younger sister - that's certainly an image the media often has presented.

There have been a couple of studies done where they actually ask people to describe what a first-born, middle-born and last-born are like. Middle-borns are the only [position in]birth order that nobody described as spoiled. And they're the only birth order that tends to get described as neglected or overlooked.

How accurate are these images?

There are some studies that do suggest that middle-borns certainly are - neglected may not the ideal word to use - but, in some ways, overlooked. There's this idea that middle-borns are bitter and negative about their experiences.

But they tend not to be particularly negative people. They're actually less likely to seek therapy than other birth orders. People who work in counselling psychology report them as showing up less frequently. And so they seem to, in fact, be very well-adjusted.

How does this compare to stereotypes about other places in birth order?

There's also a perception that the last-born child is the most open to experience and the most rebellious and adventurous. [But]there are certainly some studies that indicate that, in fact, middle children may be even more rebellious and also more open to experience.

When children are born into a family, they all have to find their own role or their own niche. The first-born comes in and can pick whatever niche they want, and typically they pick the niche that tends to result in them following the sort of family line, being recipient to family expectations and following along with that - being the more "responsible" one is how some people would articulate it, but, really, it's more falling in line with the parental expectations and desires. And so that position is taken.

So then when the next child comes along, they need to find a new role. And being open to experience or being willing to take risks facilitates taking the chances that will allow you to find the niche that you need to find or the role you need to find in life

Still, you do mention that, as children, middle-borns often have lower self-esteem than their siblings.

They do. And part of that is probably because of two things: receiving less parental attention, but also perceiving themselves as less unique in the family, because they don't have that special first-borns role or that special baby-in-the-family role.

There's no clearly defined job for them in the family when they're young. And that sometimes results in lower self-esteem.

How can parents support their middle child if he or she is suffering from low self-worth?

Parents should make sure that when their children achieve things, they praise them all equally. Sometimes parents may naturally focus more on their first and last, so they need to be aware and give appropriate awards to middles when they're successful.

It's good to make a big deal out of situations where your middle-born has had particular achievements, because that will tend to reinforce their sense of self-esteem, which is really just a barometer of how you think other people see you.

But you say there's a positive side to this lower self-esteem.

Middle children are unlikely to get a swelled head about their achievements, and I actually think that this sometimes works to middle-borns' advantages. I don't think that they have the overinflated sense that some other children can end up getting.

Who is your favourite prominent middle-born figure?

I'm particularly fond of the Charles Darwin example because his parents - he didn't do what they wanted. They wanted him to be a doctor, and thought that would be the good thing for him to do.

He went off and did something totally different and, in fact, had not been very successful at his earlier academic attempts; but now he has left this legacy in terms of completely revolutionizing biology.

Also Bill Gates. He's been extremely successful in business. And he's got a lot of what we think of as the empathetic traits: given so much to charity, so invested in trying to do positive things on a wider social level with resources - but again, somebody who really wasn't doing what the parental expectations was. Just sort of doing his own thing.

How do the marriages of middle-borns compare to their siblings' marriages?

They're willing to let things go, and are not always intent on getting their own way, because that didn't work for them when they were younger. So they've grown up with a more give-and-take approach to that sort of thing, which is very helpful in a marriage situation.

One Israeli study said middle-borns had the happiest marriages, and that they are like type-O blood: They go with any other birth order in marriage. …

I had done a study where I asked about openness to sexual experiences - sort of a measure of sexual adventurousness - and the middle-borns were the most open to that sort of thing, which might speak to the marriages actually being happier!

They seem to be very open to trying to new things - but not very open to cheating, which I thought of as being a good thing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Anita Li is a writer for The Globe and Mail.

Report Typo/Error

Follow us on Twitter: @globeandmail


Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular