For generations of psychologists and parents alike, birth order has been an intriguing area of study and debate when it comes to raising children. How do children that come from the same parents and are raised in the same environment each turn out so differently?
As the parent of three, I have always found it interesting to see how my children fit into these molds and how their birth order affects the personalities they are developing. A leader or a follower; the responsible, Type A overachiever or the spoiled, fun-loving free spirit. How do they fit in? Then there is the child that falls somewhere in the middle. The one spoken of in whispered tones, “Oh, he’s a middle child.” As if this label alone somehow accounts for aberrant behaviors. There is just something about the term Middle Child that has always tugged at my heart strings, and I wanted to understand it more fully. Certainly, birth order is only one factor that contributes to a child’s developing personality, but most parents agree psychotherapist Alfred Adler’s theory is surprisingly accurate when describing their own children’s developing personalities.
The stereotypical First Born child’s personality is easiest to understand. First Born children don’t have to do much to garner their parents’ attention. It comes to them naturally and without interruption. First Borns quickly learn that in order to maintain the right kind of attention from their parents, they must simply do that which the parent wants them to do and do it well. First Borns are typically responsible, rarely make waves and may take on the role as surrogate parent to his or her younger siblings. First Borns are often perfectionists, always striving to do their best and make their parents proud. Life in the First Born lane is typically a straight and narrow path as these children strive to please others, rarely step out of line, show excellent leadership skills and always try to do the right thing in order to maintain the high level of positive attention they are used to receiving. When I think of my first child, I can certainly see many of these characteristics. He is my rule follower and is most comfortable when everyone else is following the rules, too. When one of his siblings steps out of line, he does not hesitate to tell them, or me, so. He is hard on himself. In fact, much harder on himself than we (his parents) are, and often he cannot see the forest for the trees, focusing on small mistakes, imperfections and areas of difficulty rather than looking at the big picture of his accomplishments.
Have we created this perfectionism with overly high standards? Probably. But we work hard to keep our expectations in line with his abilities. That’s not always easy for parents of First Borns because we have nothing to use as a comparison. Both the First Born and the parents of the First Born are tackling new territory on a daily basis, and that can be a challenge.
Last Born children are also fairly straightforward and simple to understand. The “baby” of the family, Last Borns are often accustomed to getting their way. They have no worries of being “dethroned” (their role will not change or be challenged by another), and the level of attention they get from mom and dad rivals that of the First Borns. Last Borns are typically very social, very congenial children. Personality plus! They can be innovative, finding new and different ways to stand out in the family. They are often comical and entertaining and may be very social creatures. Last Borns may also be laid back, spoiled, somewhat irresponsible and more dependent on mom and dad than their siblings. Do these characteristics coincide with my own Last Born child? Absolutely! Of course, she is only 2 years old. She is most definitely the baby of the family and is treated as such. Spoiled? Yep. Comical and entertaining? Check. Do my expectations and demands on her differ from those of her older siblings at the same age? Well, let’s just say she still takes a bottle, uses a pacifier and has no inkling of potty training or the word “no.” By the third time around, I’m a bit less stringent about reaching important milestones than I was 10 years ago. She will get there eventually.
Sandwiched between these two very strong entities is the proverbial Middle Child. Often thought of as the “forgotten child” who somehow gets lost between the Type A older sibling and the needy younger one, the Middle Child may not understand his role in the family or may feel that he isn’t important. Attention doesn’t come easily to this child; the Middle Child has to work hard for it. A Middle Child is often very independent and self-reliant, even secretive. Friendships and peer relationships are very important to these kids, often seeking out their place to shine outside of the family. They are often very adaptable, “chameleons” in their ability to fit in, and can be real show-offs and highly social. Middle Children are also good peacemakers and negotiators. Some may suffer from Middle Child Syndrome, feeling ignored or resentful of the attention paid to their older and younger siblings.
The truth of the matter is, I never wanted a Middle Child — this child that falls through the cracks or is overlooked and underappreciated. A forgotten child? How could any parent forget about their child, no matter when he was born into the family? So when I became pregnant with my third child, I decided my second child would never be a Middle Child. Yes, he was born between my first and third, but he would not be overlooked. He would receive just as much attention as my other two kids, be loved equally and would never be forgotten. But when I think of my second born, I have to admit I see many Middle Child characteristics, and they aren’t necessarily bad. Is he forgotten? Of course not. But he is more independent. He has observed his older sibling going through similar situations before him and is better equipped to handle them. And we as parents are more willing to step back and allow our second born to face challenges on his own, rather than holding his hand through each and every step as we did the first time around. No matter my good intentions of giving equal amounts of attention, he just doesn’t seem to need it.
He is extremely social and is very capable of fitting in with almost any group of kids. Where my oldest feels constant stress and pressure to make good grades and succeed in all activities he attempts, my second child is content to pass and simply be on the team. He is more laid-back than his older sibling and more independent than his younger. He bridges the gap between his siblings, the chameleon within the family. Completely capable of hanging with the big boys or playing on the floor with dolls and a tea set, my Middle Child can adapt to any situation.These are not just characteristics of a Middle Child to be overcome or tamped down, they are strengths that should be encouraged and embraced. I still work hard to ensure that he never feels overlooked and that he knows the important role he plays in our family. We as parents should strive to bring all of our children a little closer to this healthy middle ground. Perhaps then will those whispered words about the Middle Child be said in reverence rather than reticence: “Of course, he is a middle child!”