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Video: Do middle children thrive more in life?

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    MATT LAUER, co-host: We're back now at 8:20. This morning on TODAY'S FAMILY , the secret power of middle children . Most people agree your birth order has a real major impact on who you are. And if you're stuck in the middle , it can present unique challenges and some surprising rewards.

    Ms. KELLY TOMERSON: It's really unique, our family situation because...

    LAUER: Kelly Tomerson certainly has her hands full.

    Ms. TOMERSON: I am the mother of four children four and under. My middles are actually twins, boy-girl twins, that are 28 months.

    LAUER: She's acutely aware of her children 's different personality traits .

    Ms. TOMERSON: It's crazy how at such a young age you can already see the influence on birth order .

    LAUER: Kelly 's especially in tune with her middles because of her own experience growing up in the middle .

    Ms. TOMERSON: I think my personality definitely is influenced by my birth order .

    LAUER: Thirty-five -year-old Kelly has one older sister, Kristin , and a younger one, Katie .

    KATIE: We're each other's best friends and each other's therapists. I mean...

    LAUER: Both sisters agree that Kelly 's role greatly shapes her personality.

    KATIE: She knows what she wants and she goes after it. But she's also extremely nurturing and loving.

    KRISTIN: She's really a product of being the middle child.

    LAUER: For Kelly , it's sometimes confusing.

    Ms. TOMERSON: The beginning and the end is always like the best part. And the middle is just lost somewhere in between.

    LAUER: And it can be challenging.

    Ms. TOMERSON: There was a certain amount of feeling like you had something to prove or you needed to set yourself apart from just being like your sister.

    LAUER: But in the end, it's a role Kelly 's grateful for.

    Ms. TOMERSON: I love being the middle child. I think it's the best of both worlds . I have my older sister to look up to and I follow her lead and then I had my younger sister that I could be a nurturer to. I'm hoping that my kids will have that same feeling. Catherine Salmon and Katrin Schumann are the authors of "The Secret Power of Middle Children ." Ladies, good morning to you.

    Ms. CATHERINE SALMON (Co-Author, "The Secret power of Middle Children"): Good morning.

    Ms. KATRIN SCHUMANN (Co-Author, "The Secret Power of Middle Children"): Good morning.

    LAUER: Where are you in the birth order ?

    Ms. SALMON: I'm the baby of the family.

    Ms. SCHUMANN: Second born.

    LAUER: Second born, OK. The stereotype...

    Ms. SCHUMANN: Yeah.

    LAUER: ...is that these middle children , they feel left out. They weren't special because they're not the oldest, they're not special because they weren't the youngest. How does it impact their lives generally speaking?

    Ms. SALMON: There are a variety of different ways in which it impacts their lives. Obviously it does in the sense that other people perceive them based on stereotypes that other people hold about birth order , right? So for example, people often think of middle children as being envious or being resentful and not having a very positive outlook on life. One of the things that we really wanted to highlight with the book is that this isn't the case. That, in fact, even though middle borns may in fact be somewhat neglected and overlooked because they're middle children and they don't have that unique role, they in fact turn out to be really bold and adventurous, positive people.

    LAUER: There's also what, you flip a coin on its side and you look at something in an interesting way. You talk about self-esteem. And perhaps they don't have the same level of self-esteem as an older or younger child, but you don't necessarily think that's a bad thing?

    Ms. SCHUMANN: Well, that's quite right. Self-esteem really has to be earned to be worth something. And there are a lot of people who have great self-esteem, but really it's an ego issue. It's not that they necessarily deserve to feel that confident. With middle children they tend to as they mature and they have more successes in their lives their confidence and self-esteem is far...

    LAUER: It's more realistic. It's more...

    Ms. SCHUMANN: ...far more realistic.

    LAUER: Let me give you a couple of traits and a couple of characteristics and you tell me how middles do with these. Conflict. Dealing with conflict. How do middles do that?

    Ms. SALMON: Well, middle borns deal with it in two different ways. One of the things is very positive. They don't like a lot of conflict. And so they've developed really good peacemaking skills and negotiating skills, which they use to get along better with people and to help people resolve their conflicts. Downside of this is because they don't like too much conflict sometimes they let things slide and they can get resentful.

    LAUER: How about leadership? Are middle children good in leadership roles?

    Ms. SCHUMANN: It's surprising actually how many middles are great leaders. I mean, we can talk about 52 percent of presidents actually are middle children . It's erroneously thought that most presidents are first borns. That's not correct. People like Bill Gates , he's a middle child. He's a forward-thinker, a trailblazer. So middles really have that capacity in them to be leaders.

    LAUER: People like the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela , middle children , Princess Diana was a middle child. Philanthropy? Caring for others , a big trait?

    Ms. SALMON: Certainly it's a very big trait. Many middle borns score very high in what we would call things like altruism and caring for others, really good friendship specialists. And so they very often are highly invested in the welfare of others. And partially because they themselves may have perceived the slights and the disadvantages that they might have had as small children in competition with their siblings, they care more about the disadvantages they see other people having.

    LAUER: I've just got 20 seconds left. One piece of advice you could give to the parent of a middle child, what would you give that parent?

    Ms. SCHUMANN: I would say don't overthink and stress too much about the attention issue. Because middle children really end up very independent, being able to think outside the box and think on their own two feet. And so you can mellow out about that.

    LAUER: Just relax a little bit, right?

    Ms. SCHUMANN: Yes.

    LAUER: Catherine and Katrin , thank you both.

    Ms. SALMON: Thank you.

TODAY books
updated 8/3/2011 4:41:05 PM ET 2011-08-03T20:41:05

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.

Book excerpt: "The Secret Power of Middle Children"
Hudson Street Press

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.

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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.

Video: Do middle children thrive more in life? (on this page)

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.

And middles?

TODAY Moms: Blogger interviews her middle child to find the truth

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:
- Neglect
- Resentment
- 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.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive


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