With more and more par­ents opt­ing to have just one or two chil­dren, is the mid­dle child be­com­ing an en­dan­gered species?


With more par­ents opt­ing to have one or two chil­dren only, are we los­ing the spe­cial gifts of the mid­dle child?

Nel­son Man­dela, Princess Diana, Bill Gates, Martin Luther King Jr, Abra­ham Lin­coln… what do they all have in com­mon? Okay, so the head­line will have tipped you off, but yes, they’re all mid­dle chil­dren. And even though mid­dle kids are of­ten seen as ‘for­got­ten’, ‘un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated’ or ‘re­sent­ful’ (hell, they have a syn­drome named af­ter them), they’re also typ­i­cally the peace­keep­ers: the go­b­e­tween sib­ling when a fight breaks out, and the skilled ne­go­tia­tor in the fam­ily.

Ac­cord­ing to re­cent birth rate stats, how­ever, the mid­dle child is all but dis­ap­pear­ing from the fam­ily dy­namic. Think about it: of all the peo­ple you know who have young kids, how many have more than two? We’re faced with an up­com­ing gen­er­a­tion that will con­sist mostly of first­borns, last-borns and only chil­dren. So why does that mat­ter? In The Mid­dle

Child is Go­ing Ex­tinct, Adam Stern­bergh writes: ‘If you give cre­dence to the con­cept of birth-or­der at­tributes – the idea that where you are born among your sib­lings leaves an in­deli­ble mark on your per­son­al­ity – then you must now con­tem­plate a world in which an en­tire sub­species is about to dis­ap­pear, for gen­er­a­tions to come. Which af­fects all of us – first, last and in-be­tween.’


‘The one thing you can bet your pay­cheque on is that the first­born and sec­ond-born in any given fam­ily are go­ing to be dif­fer­ent,’ writes Amer­i­can psy­chol­o­gist Dr Kevin Le­man, au­thor of The Birth Or­der Book: Why You Are the Way You Are.

The first psy­chol­o­gist to the­o­rise about the ef­fect that birth or­der has on our per­son­al­ity, as early as the 1900s, was Aus­trian psy­chother­a­pist Al­fred Adler, a dis­ci­ple of Sig­mund Freud and founder of the school

of in­di­vid­ual psy­chol­ogy. But there have been many since.

Jenny Perkel, clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and founder of the child de­vel­op­ment and child psy­chol­ogy web­site Chil­dren in Mind (www. chil­dren­in­, ex­plains that of­ten with the first­born, the par­ents are less ex­pe­ri­enced and learn­ing as they go along.

‘There’s a lot of ex­pec­ta­tion on the old­est,’ adds Cape Town be­havioural psy­chol­o­gist Dr Helgo Schomer. ‘This makes them am­bi­tious and good at lead­ing oth­ers.’ The ba­bies of the fam­ily, he says, are the risk-tak­ers and ma­nip­u­la­tors.

‘By this stage the par­ents are more le­nient, and so the youngest will en­joy ev­ery­thing the old­est and mid­dle never had. No­body dic­tates to them as much as they did to the first and mid­dle.’

And if there’s a big gap be­tween the youngest and the other sib­lings, the laat­lam­metjie gets ev­ery­one’s at­ten­tion, which makes them a charm­ing prima donna, he adds.

The only child, says Perkel, is of­ten over­val­ued, ‘to a point where their self-en­ti­tle­ment can be quite high’.

There’s also a huge em­pha­sis on them to suc­ceed, which can make them self-reliant, dili­gent and a per­fec­tion­ist (some­times to a fault).

Things get in­ter­est­ing when it comes to the mid­dle child, says Schomer: ‘When the sec­ond­born ar­rives, the par­ents have learnt a lot and no longer feel they need to give as much at­ten­tion as they did to the old­est. And, of course, when the youngest comes along, de­pend­ing on the age gap, things can feel brand new again.’

As mid­dle child Juli (56) puts it, ‘My older sis­ter did things to ab­so­lute praise and fan­fare, and by the time I did them it just wasn’t a big deal to my par­ents. But by the time my younger sis­ter did them,

it was a big deal again be­cause it was quite a few years later and new again. I wanted some of that at­ten­tion, and caus­ing a ruckus was the only way I thought I could get it.’

Schomer says the mid­dle child has ‘nei­ther the rights of the old­est nor the priv­i­leges of the youngest’.

It may seem like they get a raw deal, but re­search by Ka­trin Schu­mann, co-au­thor of The Se­cret

Power of Mid­dle Chil­dren, shows that be­ing the one in the mid­dle can teach you in­valu­able life skills. ‘“Mid­dles” are used to not get­ting their own way, so they be­come savvy and skil­ful ma­nip­u­la­tors,’ she says. ‘They can see all sides of a ques­tion, and are em­pa­thetic and judge re­ac­tions well. They’re more will­ing to com­pro­mise, so they can ar­gue suc­cess­fully. Since they of­ten have to wait around as kids, they’re more pa­tient.’

Their ‘lack of unique­ness and at­ten­tion at home’ means mid­dle kids are of­ten plagued by low self-es­teem. But, ar­gues Schu­mann: ‘Self-es­teem isn’t as crit­i­cal as so­ci­ety be­lieves [it to be]. Hav­ing an ac­cu­rate sense of your self­es­teem is more im­por­tant than hav­ing high self-es­teem. Sur­pris­ingly, new stud­ies show that high self-es­teem does not cor­re­late with bet­ter grades in school or greater suc­cess in life. It can ac­tu­ally lead to a lack of per­se­ver­ance in the face of dif­fi­cul­ties.’

Juli agrees, say­ing that be­ing the mid­dle child made her work harder and made her more com­pet­i­tive. ‘As a child I tried to do ev­ery­thing bet­ter than my older sis­ter: when she started read­ing and writ­ing, I copied, and I could al­ready read and write by the time I started school. When she brought home a re­port card with 80 per­cent, I brought one home with 90 per­cent.’


Schomer and Perkel both agree that to­day’s world is far more com­plex than tra­di­tional Birth Or­der The­ory would have us be­lieve. ‘[It’s] just one of sev­eral fac­tors that de­ter­mine our be­havioural psy­chol­ogy,’ says Schomer. ‘The great­est fac­tor is our ge­net­ics.

‘Other fac­tors that in­flu­ence us are: gen­der (if the sec­ond-born is the op­po­site gen­der of the first, it’s a new ex­pe­ri­ence for the par­ents), phys­i­cal­ity (if the sec­ond-born is stronger than the old­est, they’ll switch tra­di­tional roles), disability (a dis­abled child, re­gard­less of where they are in the birth or­der, will take most of their par­ents’ at­ten­tion) and tal­ents (if one sib­ling is ex­traor­di­nar­ily gifted at some­thing, the par­ents will dote on them to nur­ture that tal­ent).’

Another cru­cial fac­tor is the mod­ern fam­ily dy­namic, says Perkel: ‘[To­day] there are so many other fac­tors to think about, such as di­vorce, blended fam­i­lies, chil­dren that are adopted… The list goes on.’

‘We also need to re­mem­ber that each fam­ily is unique,’ says Schomer. ‘If each child were two-and-ahalf years apart, had het­ero­sex­ual par­ents and lived in a sta­ble home, maybe con­di­tions would be per­fect to cre­ate the typ­i­cal mid­dle child. But that’s not how so­ci­ety works.’

Be­cause of the large age gaps be­tween her and her sib­lings, Belinda (39) doesn’t feel she fits the tra­di­tional role of the mid­dle child. ‘I come from a fam­ily of peace­keep­ers, so while I tend to avoid con­flict, I don’t be­lieve I am nec­es­sar­ily the peace­keeper in the house­hold – in fact, I’ve be­come more con­fronta­tional over the years.’

‘The tra­di­tional con­cept of the mid­dle child is dis­ap­pear­ing,’ says Perkel. But while the jury may be out on how much in­flu­ence birth or­der has on your per­son­al­ity, Belinda and Juli do have one thing in com­mon: be­ing a mid­dle child has greatly in­flu­enced how they raise their own chil­dren.

‘I don’t want my el­dest daugh­ter grow­ing up feel­ing like she has to take life too se­ri­ously while the youngest, my son, gets to take on the role of the cheeky baby,’ says Belinda. ‘But I know their birth or­der will af­fect how they see the world, but I’m do­ing my best to hon­our their unique per­son­al­i­ties.’

Juli, whose three sons are all adults, never wanted them to feel ne­glected like she did: ‘I made sure I treated them the same.’


So how would we be af­fected if the mid­dle child were ex­tinct? For Juli, the world would be a much more bor­ing place. ‘I think mid­dle chil­dren are the movers and shak­ers, and that would def­i­nitely be missed if they were no more. Imag­ine gen­er­a­tions of first-born an­gels and cod­dled ba­bies – there wouldn’t be any­one to rock the boat!’

For Belinda, the world would be a scarier place. ‘Many world lead­ers have been mid­dle chil­dren be­cause they’re skilled ne­go­tia­tors and peace­mak­ers – and we cer­tainly need more peace­mak­ers these days!’

But Schomer feels so­ci­ety is adapt­able and that we’ll al­ways have peo­ple to fill those roles.

‘Per­haps the real con­cern,’ says Perkel, ‘would be what hap­pens when par­ents are hav­ing fewer chil­dren. There’d be noth­ing to dif­fuse a par­ent’s fo­cus.’

Imag­ine a world with noth­ing but stressed-out per­fec­tion­ist chil­dren –

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