Most agree that your birth significantly impacts who you are. If you're a middle child, or a parent of one, it can pose unique challenges and surprising rewards. Catherine Salmon and Katrin Schumann are the authors of "The Secret Power of Middle Children." An excerpt.
It's all about family
Ask anyone how family dynamics shapes their vision of themselves, their relationships at work and at home, their hopes for the future, and you’re bound to get an earful. Yet, while many books have explored the subject of birth order, not one of them has been specifically aimed at middleborns. There’s a distinct lack of good research on middle children, and as a result these false assumptions about them are perpetuated.
Initially, my research in graduate school focused on gender differences, but what I discovered along the way surprised me. In one of my first studies I asked three hundred male and female undergraduate students about the nature of their family relationships, posing such questions as “Who, out of all the people you know, are you closest to?” While 64 percent of firstborns named one of their parents, only 39 percent of lastborns did — and, most surprisingly, only 10 percent of middleborns said they were closest to their parents. The same basic pattern was replicated in a later study of mine as well as in several overseas studies conducted by other researchers.
This was news to me. I was discovering that birth order has a far greater impact on some aspects of family relationships than gender. And middles were proving themselves, yet again, to be different not only from firsts but also from lasts. As I continued my research, I found that middleborns felt less close to their parents, kept in less frequent contact with them once they moved away from home (typically when going to college), were less invested in their own parents (both financially and time-wise), and more attached to their friends. I became fascinated by the seeming paradox in middles’ personalities. The middleborns I knew personally and read about were successful, but the research shows that middles are distant from their families, feel less powerful than their siblings, and are overlooked and underappreciated by the general public. How could that be?
While reading reams of psychological literature on birth order, I consistently found very little information focusing on middleborns as a distinctive group. Most often they were thrown into the same category as lastborns, creating the “laterborn” group. In 1982, Jeannie Kidwell wrote cogently about middle children, yet since then much of the work produced has not been backed up by solid theory. But one startling and welcome exception to this was Frank Sulloway’s 1996 book, Born to Rebel.
More in books
Sulloway sat on my thesis defense committee. As a twenty-six-year-old Ph.D. student at McMaster University, I entered the echoing examination room with serious butterflies in my stomach. Already a famous expert back then, Sulloway was more intent on putting me at ease than making me feel like a fool (something many thesis committee members often seem intent on). But it wasn’t simply his supportive attitude that inspired me; it was also his groundbreaking work. Here in his book was solid psychological theory on birth order that made predictions and then tested them. And yet, like so many other professionals in the field, Sulloway also focused on firstborns versus laterborns.
Once again, middles were in the shadows. I saw an exciting opportunity and grabbed it. The study of middleborns became my niche.
The enduring myths
Middleborns make up a significant proportion of the population. After all, every family with three or more children has at least one middleborn. While there are around 70 million middles in America (counting adults and children), there’s been remarkably little focus on understanding the role that birth order has played in shaping their lives. They’re often referred to as “the neglected birth order” — a reference both to the way they’ve experienced their family growing up and the way they’ve been overlooked by researchers.
But what do people really think about middles? One study from the City College of New York asked participants to list three words that described each birth order position and then rate those words in terms of their positive or negative connotations. The firstborn position was seen as the most favored, with more positively viewed traits than negative ones.
Many traits, such as “ambitious” and “friendly,” were listed across several birth orders. Middleborns were the only birth order, however, that did not have the word “spoiled” as a descriptor. Several traits appeared only in relation to the middle position, including “neglected/overlooked” and “confused.” While they actually shared many positive terms with other birth orders (such as “caring,” “outgoing,” and “responsible”), it’s often the traits that make someone different that stick in people’s heads. Would you remember that middles are “ambitious/achievers” or only that they are “neglected” and “confused”?
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A more recent study explored people’s beliefs about which features they attribute to which birth order so researchers could examine how those beliefs influence the way people act. This is important because, for instance, if you believe firstborns are more hardworking or intelligent than others, it could impact which employee you decide to promote. After all, our beliefs about people affect how we behave toward them. Researchers asked Stanford University undergraduates to complete questionnaires that had them rate only children, firstborns, middleborns, lastborns and themselves on five point scales, including such descriptors as agreeable-disagreeable; bold-timid; and creative-uncreative. Firstborns were seen as most intelligent, obedient, stable, and responsible. Lastborns were the most emotional, extroverted, irresponsible, and talkative.
Middle children were perceived as most envious, and least bold and talkative. Not a very good showing for middles in terms of how others perceive them.
And let’s take a look at how birth order is portrayed in the media. Dozens and dozens of articles are focused on the so-called “middle child syndrome.” According to online, newspaper, and magazine articles, this syndrome is characterized by the following:
- Low creativity
- Lack of career focus
- A negative outlook on life
- The feeling that they don’t belong
The overall picture is tremendously negative. It portrays middleborns as unable to find their place in the world, shying away from the spotlight, bitter and resentful, underachievers, and loners. One author of a birth order book remarked that a reader had written to complain about how few pages were devoted to middles compared to other birth orders. The author quipped that only a middle child — neglected and envious — would care about something like that. Considering the lack of attention paid to them in the research literature, I couldn’t help but feel for the reader and be annoyed by the author. But it definitely reflects the way middles have been perceived — up until now.
"The Secret Power of Middle Children" will dismantle these outdated middle child myths and present a fascinating new character sketch. In reality, contrary to expectations, middleborns are agents of change in business, politics, and science — more so than firstborns or lastborns. Middles are self-aware team players with remarkable diplomatic skills. Because they’re both outgoing and flexible, they tend to deal well with others—in the workplace and at home. They’re more motivated by fairness than money when making life choices, and have a deep sense of family, friends, and loyalty. History shows them to be risk takers and trailblazers, yet they do suffer needlessly from poor self-esteem. Through this book I hope to set the record straight.
Every child searches for a niche
What is it, that makes children within a family react so differently to the same basic environment? There’s agreement among most researchers that genetic influences account for around 40 percent of the variance in personality and that an almost equal amount of variance (about 35 percent) is due to non-shared environment, in which birth order is key. We call the family environment non-shared as each child experiences it differently.
As we know, if all else is equal on the prenatal and nutritional front, a person’s DNA determines how tall he or she will be or whether that person will have curly or straight hair. It even impacts whether the person will favor the left or the right side of the brain — in other words, whether an individual will be interested in avant-garde art or astrophysics. So where does birth order come in? It leads children to pick niches and become specialized: If your older brother is a basketball player and your younger one’s a soccer star, there’s a greater likelihood that you’ll turn to books rather than athletics even if you’re six feet two inches tall and love dribbling. It’s about the search for a role that allows you to differentiate yourself and grab a little sought-after parental attention.
All families, even animal ones who have multiple offspring at the same time, experience differences in parental allocation of resources. There’s always going to be competition among siblings for access to those resources — whether it’s parental time, attention, affection, or money. One excellent way to stay competitive for parental investment is to find one’s own niche within the family. These niches are shaped by genetic variabilities, differences in sex, and birth order. Each successive child tries to specialize in a unique niche. Conveniently, this results in a division of labor and reduces direct competition. It also makes it harder for parents to compare one child’s abilities with another.
Typically, firstborns have the least difficulty in this arena because they’re the first to choose their niche and can do so without worrying about their siblings’ preferences. (But remember that unless they remain onlies, they are eventually dethroned.) If you see personality as a strategy that serves one’s interests in the family environment, then it makes sense that the stereotypical firstborn trait of high conscientiousness—being self-disciplined and organized — is designed to please parents and maintain their favor. It’s natural that firstborns want to hang on to their special niche and not be dethroned.
Laterborn children, on the other hand, arrive on the scene to find this family role already filled. Their openness to experience makes them more willing to try different roles and develop different abilities in the search for their own niche — one that’s different from their older siblings.
Excerpted from “The Secret Power of Middle Children” by Catherine Salmon and Katrin Schumann. Copyright 2011. Excerpted by permission of Hudson Street Press. All rights reserved.
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