Has the role of the middle child been misunderstood?

As a classic middle child – the second of three – Bruce Hopman grew up with the knowledge he occupied an uncertain position in his parents’ affections. But he derived comfort from a single event: during his family’s annual road trip from New Jersey to Florida, they’d invite him to sit up front between them, leaving his big brother and little sister on the back seat squished between their elderly grandparents.

“At the time, I thought, ‘Oh my god, maybe I am my parents’ favourite child. Why else would I be sitting in the front seat?’ ” he says. “Years later, I realised there was no seat belt for the middle of the front seat. I was, like, the sacrificial lamb!”

He didn’t even get top billing in his own birth announcement, he laments, his mum and dad choosing to describe his arrival as a genetic adjunct to their firstborn – “a brother for Michael David” – rather than a person in his own right.

“Moving forward, the stage was pretty much set,” deadpans the creator of Smack Dab: A Middle Child’s Blog – a dedication to overlooked middle children everywhere – and founder of the mock-serious International Middle Child Union. It advocates, among other things, for the switching of official Middle Child Day from August 12 to July 2, the middle day of the year.

It’s Hopman’s contention that middle-born offspring, who can spend their formative years languishing palely in the shadows of exalted, high-achieving first borns and mollycoddled, plough-their-own-furrow lasts, deserve attention of their own. But maybe it’s another case of too little, too late for this beleaguered demographic?

According to studies, the rise of the “micro family” throughout the developed world heralds the demise of mankind’s most populous birth order. Middle borns, like the snow leopard, the black-flanked rock wallaby and the Gouldian finch, are an endangered species. (Incidentally, the term “middle born” describes any child born after the first and before the last in a family, regardless of sibship size; the middle of three is called a “classic middle”.)

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the fertility rate of Australian women – how many children they bear in their life – hit an all-time low of 1.74 in 2017, from its 1961 peak of 3.55. Families with one or two children are the new norm. Why? Millennials are waiting longer to get married and, consequently, starting their families later. Contributing to the reproductive go-slow are rocketing house prices and education fees – not to mention the parlous state of the planet.

If middle borns were to disappear, though, would anyone care? After all, the term middle-child syndrome was coined to encapsulate the black-sheep status of the middle child and her struggle to belong, a stereotype that popular culture has embedded firmly in the collective consciousness. Just consider the anguished “Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!” soliloquy of Jan Brady (The Brady Bunch), Lisa Simpson’s lonely moral conviction (The Simpsons) or Jo March’s fiery refusal to conform (Little Women).

Eve Pumb as Jan Brady from the TV series The Brady Bunch. In her character she demonstrated many of the issues facing middle children.Credit:

The Austrian psychiatrist – and “inferiority complex” coiner – Alfred Adler, who died in 1937, pioneered the idea that our position in our sibship (the order in which we’re born) has a direct and lasting influence on our personalities. His theory offered an explanation as to why brothers and sisters, who spring from the same loins and who grow up, ostensibly, in the same household and subject to the same parental values, can be very different people.

Except they weren’t really growing up in the same conditions at all, argued Adler, because for each one, their position in the family constellation was different. The first child revels in the spotlight of undiluted parental attention until he’s “dethroned” by the arrival of a younger sibling, an event so traumatising, Adler said, it could lead to melancholy and neuroticism.

The last child, prone to over-indulgence, might grow up lacking in social empathy. The middle child, neither usurped nor cossetted, had the happiest position of all, he said, even if he was a little prone to rebellion.

Nearly a century later, in 1996, American psychologist and science historian Frank Sulloway ran with Adler’s theory and added some compelling Darwinian top-spin. In Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives, he popularised the notion of “family niches”.

“The general rule for a younger sibling,” he said in a 1998 interview, “is to do something different that adds value to the family unit as a whole.” Like the finches that Charles Darwin brought back to England from his travels in the Galapagos Islands – the ones that developed different-shaped beaks according to their native habitat – younger sibs are frantically diversifying.

“First borns tend to identify more closely with their parents and … whatever their parents value,” explained Sulloway. “Parents value a child’s doing well at school, so first borns are conscientious and generally do better at school.

"The niche of the responsible achiever is particularly likely to be open for an eldest child. Once this niche is taken, it’s difficult for a younger sibling to compete effectively for the same niche, although they often try. If they cannot, the best strategy is to branch out – to become more open to experience – and try to find some alternative niche where they will not be directly compared with their elder siblings.”

Mid kids, despite wanting to belong, he continued, are often the least clan-minded of the birth orders. They typically receive a much smaller slice of the parental-investment pie than their sibs – in terms of attention and money – and often turn outwards, away from the family, to their peer group for support. In the wake of a traumatic car accident, firsts and lasts tend to contact a parent for help: a middle is likely to call a friend or sibling.

Middle children tend to turn to friends rather than family for support. Credit:

It’s this multiplicity of the middle’s gaze – upwards to elders, downwards to youngers and outwards to peers – that endows this birth order with a specific set of attributes such as resilience, sociability, empathy and self-reliance that ensures they’re poised for success.

So says psychology professor Catherine Salmon, author of The Secret Power of Middle Children: How Middleborns Can Harness Their Unexpected and Remarkable Abilities, an entertaining, 300-page ode to mid-kid magnificence: “What few people realise is middle children are more likely to successfully effect change in the world than any other birth order,” she writes. “As is so often the case with middles, they’re perennially underestimated. For instance, while it’s often pointed out that 36 per cent of US presidents have been first borns, it’s overlooked that 52 per cent of them have been middle borns.”

Salmon’s book is teeming with research and real-life case studies that highlight the essential agreeableness of the middleton’s character. They are, she says, the diplomat in the sibship, resolving conflict, midwifing agreement, seeking consensus and building coalitions inside and, later, outside the family. They identify strongly with an underdog – a result of their own low-wattage niche growing up – and will pursue justice relentlessly on their behalf.

There are anecdotes from the lives of well-known middles: Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who brokered the historic 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Accord; philanthropist Bill Gates; Princess Diana; and Lech Walesa, union organiser and Poland’s first democratically elected president. Altruism, she concludes, pulses more strongly in the veins of middle-borns than any other birth order.

She includes details of a 2009 French study that investigated the selfishness of different birth orders. Two players, A and B, are each given $30. A has to decide how much money, if any, he’s prepared to share with B. This amount is then tripled by the experimenter and given to B. B must then decide how much of his total, if any, he’s willing to share with A.

“If, increasingly, families have only one or two children, as a society I believe we’ll be losing out in the long run.”

“The logical choice for a player who lacks trust,” says Salmon, “is to hold on to the money for fear he won’t get it back from player B – just as the logical choice for player B is to take the money, pocket the triple profit, and stop the game – that is, not show reciprocity to player A.

“In this [study],” she continues, “middle-borns more frequently trust they’ll get the money back and so they consistently gave more of their money to player B. Middles also demonstrated greater reciprocity as player B by giving money back to player A more frequently than other birth orders. In contrast, first borns were significantly less trustful and reciprocated less than middle borns, last borns and onlys. As has been well documented, firsts tend to be prudent and more concerned with advancement of self than other birth orders.”

But if the middle child is, indeed, heading the way of the thylacine, what effect will a dearth of these important, right-brain skills have on humanity? Are we about to lose a whole subspecies of activist whose mission is to soften and bring dignity to the daily cut and thrust of our existence?

Salmon admits that she feels a sense of urgency. “If, increasingly, families have only one or two children, as a society I believe we’ll be losing out in the long run. That’s partly why I wrote this book: to herald the talents and inclinations of the middle child and to remind us all that these unrecognised skills are an integral part of what makes our world go round.

“Perhaps by focusing on these traits and recognising why they’re important for us as a civilisation, we can continue to improve our society despite slowly losing our middles.”

I visit the Woods family one weeknight in Croydon, Sydney, just as Danielle and her husband of 16 years, Andrew, are sitting down for dinner – baked barramundi and vegetables – with their three children, Xavier, 13, Sasha, 11, and Leila, 9. The scene at the table radiates an almost beatific Rockwellian harmony.

Danielle, a barrister, is barefoot, slim in corporate pants and shirt with dark, curly hair and glasses. She is her parents’ second child, born three years after Claudine and two-and-a-half years before David. She remembers a time, as a kid, of always being “lumped together” with one or other of her siblings, a constant reminder of her middleton status.

Parents Andrew and Danielle Woods are middles, and take care to ensure Sasha doesn’t get lost in the space between Xavier and Leila.Credit:Nic Walker

“I didn’t have my own bedroom until I was 11,” she says. “I was with my parents as a baby and then I shared with Claudine until David came along – and then, when Claudine got her own room, I shared with David until my parents added an extension to the house. I seemed always to be in one of two sub-groups: either with my sister as ‘the two girls together’ – or with my brother as ‘the two little ones’.”

At the start of high school, though, Danielle started to assert her individuality. While Claudine and David excelled in art and drama respectively, Danielle started getting noticed not only for her skills on the hockey field, but also her classroom smarts. From 13 onwards, she reckons she absorbed more of her parents’ time – and money, probably – than her two siblings combined.

“In the things that get rewarded – academic performance, for example – I did well,” she says. “But my brother and sister were very good at other things. At a young age, David could name all England’s kings and queens, for example, and all the world’s rivers. A total trivia nut. Claudine was creative and very good at art. My energies were … pragmatic. I never read books for enjoyment, for instance. I read the books I had to read to pass exams.”

The seeds of Danielle’s vocation were planted as a 14-year-old reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird – a school text – which were then fed and watered by rapt viewings of L.A. Law (“the glamour!”) and the more risqué British series This Life in the family living-room in Sydney’s Panania. She remembers doing the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test at 19 or 20 and fitting precisely the ISTJ (Introvert, Sensing, Thinking, Judging) lawyer profile.

“Not that there were ever any arguments in our household,” she says. “My family still don’t argue. It’s all very polite passive-aggression.”

These days, she says, Claudine and David, who are both gay, probably have more in common with each other than with her, but her role as cool-headed family consigliere is assured. “I drafted the loan agreement when my parents helped my sister buy a house,” she says.

Middle borns who marry middle borns, say the experts, often enjoy deeply satisfying unions. Certainly, Danielle and Andrew, who is the second of three brothers, were aware of a shared emotional shorthand during their courtship in the early noughts.

“By the time we got married, on Andrew’s 30th birthday in November 2004, we’d been friends for a long time,” says Danielle. “I remember saying in my wedding speech that there was never going to be a reason for us to break up because we shared so many interests and life views. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?”

Andrew works in employee relations, “the sharp end of HR”, for an international confectionery company, a job that, like his wife’s, requires the ability to listen intently to, and have authentic conversations with, opposing camps – in his case senior management and union leaders – and broker agreement between them.

Growing up two years younger than Matt and only 15 months older than Tim, he was the one who could move fluidly from one fraternal “camp” to another in a way they wouldn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, with each other.

“We have a similar sense of humour, but are very different,” says Andrew, tucking into his barramundi. “Matt’s more academic, an introvert, while Tim’s very sporty. So Matt would be inside watching Star Trek while Tim was outside playing cricket. I could keep either one of them company. They really only bonded over maths and science, which I hated: I was more into history and” – he winks at Danielle – “L.A. Law.

“I liked having siblings,” he continues, “because I enjoyed having different experiences with them. I still have more in common with each of them separately than they do with each other. I feel like Matt’s cleverer than me and that’s fine. Back in the day, though, I used to work harder than anyone because I wanted to be at least at the same level as him. Tim’s probably brighter than me, too, but he was lazy, so I always had him covered.”

Mid kids seek systems and behaviours that help them define their role among their families and the greater world around them.

The couple’s decision to buck the societal trend and have three children was, just like their pairing up in the first place, inevitable. They are mindful of the pitfalls of parenting three and have introduced measures specifically around ensuring that Sasha, their classic middle, doesn’t get lost in the sibling mêlée.

Andrew takes each of his daughters out for breakfast and a game of Uno one morning a week before school (“not Xavier, because he has to walk to school at 8am”), while Danielle schedules separate “date nights” with each of them.

All three of the children play different musical instruments and different sports, something which they initiated themselves and which their parents haven’t discouraged, even though it can be inconvenient.

Middleton Sasha is, says Danielle, speaking in hushed, confidential tones, their “most motivated, hardest-working and helpful child. She practises the piano for half an hour every day without us saying a word. She wakes up earlier than the others, gets dressed, unpacks the dishwasher and starts getting breakfast ready for everyone. If anyone tries to help, there are tears.”

But her undisputed superpower, like her dad’s before her, is her social mutability. “Whether she realises it or not, Xavier and Leila vie for her attention,” says Danielle. “She is closer to each of them than they are to each other.”

Mid kids, agree the experts, seek systems and behaviours that help them define their role among their families and the greater world around them. They strive to be as unique as possible, defining themselves in terms of what their brothers and sisters are not.

Credit:AAP and Bloomberg

But if the threat of extinction of middle children is real, does it follow that parents of fewer offspring are propagating a species of lesser humans? Confusingly, the attributes that make middles so special are forged in a crucible of adversity: they exist not through a surfeit of parental attention, but because of a lack of it. The fewer the children, the more intense the parental focus on them – which might not be helpful to anyone. Hello, lawnmower parenting. (Where the helicopter parent hovers, the lawnmower parent precedes her child’s progress through life, smoothing bumps and removing obstacles.)

“I see fully the impact the lack of the middle child is having on kids’ resilience and sociability,” says Michael Grose, leading parenting author and family counsellor of 30 years’ experience. “There’s a tendency for kids in small families to be more self-centred because everything goes their way.

“Group-based living, on the other hand, teaches children how to wait their turn to have a conversation or how to share the TV. They learn it’s not dramatic if they don’t get their own way. Only children also have a tendency to worry,” he goes on. “This is because the smaller the family, the easier it is for a parent’s neuroses to be transmitted. Siblings provide insulation.”

The solution, he says, is simple, if not exactly easy: “Lighten up. Relax. Stop rushing in to take away opportunities for kids to experience discomfort and learn.”

The strongest counter-argument to the “lesser human” theory lies, perhaps, with the denouncers of birth-order theory. How could a shortage of middle children have an adverse effect on our society if middle children are, at the end of the day, no different to anyone else?

Lawnmower parents precede their child’s progress through life, smoothing bumps and removing obstacles. Credit:

In his 2004 book, The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why, New York sociologist Dalton Conley argued that the family was less a sorting house and more a frothing cauldron of parenting style, fluctuating financial fortunes, protracted illness, sudden death, divorce – and luck. A single factor, such as birth order, couldn’t possibly determine the probability of an individual to succeed.

Life was messy, he argued, not just outside the home, but inside it, too. Birth order was significant only in as far as it affected a family’s financial resources. (In bigger families, found Conley, mid kids are often less likely to receive financial support for their education and might do less well in school.)

Conley’s opening case study was compelling: the story of two Clintons. The first, William Jefferson, who climbed swiftly up the political ranks to be inaugurated as US president in 1993. The second, his younger half-brother Roger, a failed musician and actor who was convicted of cocaine possession and drug-trafficking in 1985 and sent to prison in Fort Worth, Texas, for two years. (During Bill’s administration, the Secret Service code name for Roger was, apparently, “Headache”.)

“There’s this enormous issue of sibling inequality that we sweep under the rug because we want to see the family as a haven in a harsh world, operating outside the dog-eat-dog world of American capitalism,” Conley told The New York Times. “But you can’t think of the family in isolation from larger social forces.”

Birth-order theory, still powerfully resonant for so many, keeps lurching forward, zombie-like.

Then, in 2015, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published the results of a large and seemingly decisive study by Julia Rohrer, Boris Egloff and Stefan Schmukle, analysing data from the US, UK and Germany, which found “birth order does not have a meaningful and lasting effect on the Big Five personality traits [openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism] outside of the intellectual domain”. (Sulloway and the researchers detected a slight, progressive decline in performance on psychometric intelligence tests from first- to later-borns, most likely the result of declining parental involvement.)

Yet birth-order theory, still powerfully resonant for so many, keeps lurching forward, zombie-like. For Judith*, a Sydney academic who grew up the oldest of four in a working-class household in the city’s west, the burden of expectation was so onerous that, at 30, she “abdicated” her position, a decision that caused ructions within her sibship that continue to this day.

“Our parents worked full-time, Dad on the railways, Mum as an administrative assistant, so we were latchkey kids. From a young age, I was the third parent. I fitted the first-born stereotype: responsible, organised, bossy. There were things I was disliked for, but I felt I never had a choice: the responsibility was foisted onto me.” She relinquished the role to her middle-born brother to whom she’s close.

Her parents were young, she says, and her mother seemed always to be tired, harassed, unhappy. The portrait of parenthood they presented to Judith was that it was arduous, a joyless slog. The atmosphere at home was so oppressive that, when she was 16, she moved in with her grandparents.

“Even before I had a boyfriend, Mum was keen to make sure I was on the Pill. The message was clear: ‘Do not get pregnant.’ ” Instead, her mother encouraged Judith to work hard at school, go on to university and build a life for herself that would be better than her own had been. “But then I think she resented me for doing well,” says Judith. “It’s sad.”

Birth order, she decided, was only one of myriad factors that mould a child’s personality.

It wasn’t until Judith was in her late 30s and had met and fallen in love with Peter* – a fellow academic and another first-born – that the idea of having a baby began to insinuate itself into her brain. Suddenly, it seemed like an exciting adventure to undertake in the company of someone she trusted and loved. After examining the possibility from every angle and reassuring herself that motherhood wasn’t simply a surrendering to biological destiny – she was making the decision mindfully, fully aware of the sacrifices it would entail and the happiness it would bring – she decided to ditch her contraception. She was pregnant within the month.

“I knew we’d only ever have one,” she tells me. “People would ask me, ‘Was I sure I wanted to have that kind of child?’ I was affected by this and started to do some research. I found that only children often profile similarly to first borns. Then I thought, ‘What about our job as her parents? What about the environment we create for her at home, the activities we encourage her to take up, the things in life we teach her to value? The importance of friendship, the validity of different family formations and the lifelong gift of feeling at ease in her own company?’ ”

Birth order, she decided, was only one of myriad factors that mould a child’s personality. Her daughter Caroline* is now 17 and in year 12 at a selective girls’ high school in Sydney. She’s also a keen rower and highly sociable with a “wonderful” group of friends. “I don’t think we’ve done too bad a job!” laughs Judith.

Only children have been struggling for more than 100 years to climb out from beneath the stigma of their uniqueness – ever since G. Stanley Hall, a pioneer of American psychology, declared that “being an only child is a disease in itself”. But with their ranks swelling, singleton supporters are keen to address the prejudice – and, in particular, the insistent “lonely, selfish, maladjusted” trope that dogs their footsteps through life.

Lauren Sandler, who grew up a single child and is now a mother to one, is the author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One.

“This [selfishness] label is not about how we feel about these kids at all,” she tells me via phone from her home in Brooklyn, New York, which she shares with her husband and their 12-year-old daughter, Dahlia. “It’s about how we feel about their mothers. We live in a culture that still believes deeply that women should be mothers before anything else.

“The notion of a woman not providing siblings for her child, for whatever reason, is something to be demonised and scorned. The single-child family, instead of being understood for its own trade-offs and complications and normalised as such – like any other family formation – is still seen as something horrible we do to children. God forbid that a woman, on top of working and child-rearing, has any time to herself!”

American psychologist and author of Born to Rebel, Frank Sulloway, popularised the notion of “family niches”.Credit:John Hunter Mottern

I ask her what she thinks about birth-order theory. “I always thought it was ridiculous – that it was astrology, basically – until I read Born to Rebel and met Frank Sulloway at Berkeley in 2012 when I was researching my book. Suddenly, I felt very convinced by his arguments and by his examples throughout the history of science. I think this idea that younger siblings have more freedom to self-define while the first feels the need to conform and achieve in more standard ways really does seem to line up – and not just anecdotally, but over many hundreds of years of history.”

As she’s talking, my mind flies to a drama playing out thousands of miles away in London between two brothers from the House of Windsor: princes William and Harry, responsible first and rebellious last. And also, do William and his wife Kate, like Danielle and Andrew Woods, benefit from the type of emotional lockstep that springs from being two first borns yoked together in the plough of history? And what about Charles and Camilla, another seemingly successful pairing of no-nonsense first borns? (His marriage to heart-on-her-sleeve Diana, the third of four children – and probably a “repeat offspring” as her parents struggled to lock in a male heir – was famously less happy.)

But back to Sandler: “What I find particularly interesting about only children – and Frank Sulloway helped me see this – is they share the characteristics of both first and last borns, so can be a combination of conformist leader and rebel innovator. And that can shake down in different people in different ways. It’s fascinating.”

Perhaps it’s time for us to think about all our children – firsts, lasts, in-betweens and onlys – differently. Parents, even the ones most seduced by birth-order theory, should never consider it a fait accompli, agree experts. It’s neither prescriptive nor inevitable, just a useful framework to help us gain insights into the mysterious forces at work in the shaping of a young personality.

“Sibling competition is all about optimising parental investment,” said Frank Sulloway. “What each sibling wants is special time with each parent, and when parents provide such moments, it makes children happy. By being different, each sibling is trying to develop a special set of interests, a special niche, causing parents to pay attention to them and to them alone.”

Attention. Neither too little, nor too much: just something in the middle.

* Names have been changed.

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