GOODBYE, MIDDLE CHILD?
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.’
BIRTH ORDER THEORY
‘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. childreninmind.co.za), 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.’
THE END OF THE MIDDLE
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 –