They’re the empathetic ones, the natural-born mediators. What might their dwindling numbers mean for the rest of us?
If you are a middle child, you probably already know that you are special. After all, you are resourceful, adventurous and diplomatic. But what you might not know is that middle children are on the decline and are fast becoming an endangered species, like the mountain gorilla and the hawksbill sea turtle. Middle children, historically the most populous birth- order demographic, will soon be the tiniest.
According to a Pew Research Center study, in 1976, 65% of U.S. mothers between 40 and 44 years of age had three or more children. Nearly two-thirds of women with children have one or two of them today. There has been a decrease in the number of women having children worldwide, too. A 2017 report, published in the Lancet, tracked patterns from 1950 to 2017 in every region. In 1950, women were having an average of 4.7 children in their lifetime. The global fertility rate had all but halved to 2.4 children per woman by 2017.
It is not something you aspire to be a middle child; it is something that happens to you. “There is something called middle-child syndrome,” as one middle child said to me. There is no official oldest-child syndrome, or syndrome of the youngest child. We’re the only ones with a true syndrome. ” Middle children are natural mediators, acting as the family peacemaker. Middle children tend to be private but also starved for affection.
You’re shaped primarily by what you missed out on and what you don’t possess. Traditionally, middles receive less financial and emotional support from their parents, according to studies. We often usually have less close relationships than other siblings with their mothers and fathers, and we appear to have more mates, probably in compensation.
The list of famous middle children includes figures as diverse as Warren Buffett and Jennifer Lopez, but for the most part, middles are reliably cast in the culture as oddballs, outcasts and misfits. On TV family sitcoms, the middle child is the misunderstood smart aleck, whether it’s Lisa Simpson ( The Simpsons) or Alex Dunphy ( Modern Family). Then there are Peter and Jan Brady of The Brady Bunch, the middles in their respective gender troikas.
Poor Jan, sandwiched between perfect Marcia and adorable Cindy, became pop culture’s most enduring embodiment of the middle child, a character so epically persecuted by her birthorder status that her cry from the heart – “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!” – could be the Latin motto emblazoned above the family crest of Middle Children.
In a study conducted by the City College of New York in which participants were asked to choose words they associate with first, last and middle kids, positive attributes such as caring and ambitious were cited in reference to all three birth orders. However, only middles were described as being overlooked and confused, with such negative terms. More significantly, midships were the only order of birth to which no one spoiled the term. Middles can be many things, but they don’t overindulge themselves.
As Bruce Hopman, the founder of the International Middle Child Union and a classic middle child, pointed out to me, Abel – Adam and Eve’s middle son and the brother to Cain and Seth – was both history’s first middle child and history’s first murder victim.
It’s possible, of course, that the entire theory of birth-order attribution is overblown. Many psychologists discount it altogether. While older children may grow up to be CEOs (they do it disproportionately) and younger children may grow up to be comedians (they do it disproportionately), people tend to agree with personality traits that seem to be tailored to them, even if they are generally sufficient to apply to a large group.
The main counterargument for the significance of birth order is that it helps understand-along with biology-why siblings can be so different. Siblings are, after all, usually subject to the same conditions of growth, whether parental, geographical or cultural. Sex and birth order are the only clear variances in the siblings.
Birth-order theory suggests that, because they aren’t burdened by excessive expectation (like the firstborn) nor excessive attention (like the last-born), middle-borns are uniquely poised to succeed. They are skilled diplomats by virtue of being stuck between two siblings. They’re portrayed as loyal romantic partners and friends because they are both hungry for intimate bonds and willing to compromise to maintain relationships. And they’re believed to be natural innovators, since they’re less likely to feel the weight of parental expectation. (Bill Gates is the middle child of a prominent lawyer. His older sister, Kristianne, grew up to become an accountant.)
“What few people realise is that middle children are actually more likely to effect change in the world successfully than any other birth order,” says psychologist Catherine Salmon, a leading expert on middle children. “As is so often the case with middles, they’re perennially underestimated.”
A world without as many hardy types whose upbringing gives them a knack for empathy. Jennifer Garner, when asked about raising kids in Hollywood, once referred to her own middle-childness. “I am the model middle child,” she explained. “I am patient and I like to take care of everyone. Being called nice is a compliment. It’s not a boring way to describe me.” Patient. Caring. Nice. Even boring. Doesn’t it feel like those are qualities we need more of right now?
These qualities, of course, won’t disappear entirely. But as the number of middle children dwindles, there is real reason to fear. Because the irony is that the strengths associated with middle children come not from parental nurturing but from parental inattention. That means these virtues are especially difficult to cultivate in other kids. The secret power of middles, says Salmon, “points away from the notion that successful parenting is all about time and attention.” In advocating for middles, Salmon is also promoting the idea that today’s culture of overparenting is actually hindering the development of classic middle-child merits in all children, because middles are forged in benign neglect.
It’s hard to imagine a world without so many of the middle children we know. There’s Nelson Mandela and Charles Darwin and Charlotte and Emily Brontë and Martin Luther King Jr. You could no doubt make lists of firstborns and last-borns and only children whom it would be just as hard to imagine the world without. But we’ve never had a problem celebrating the Marcias and the Cindys. Maybe it’s time for Jan to have her day.
So with birth rates dropping, middle children largely disappear, everyone else will lose the distinctive qualities they have to offer. And here’s one last bit of injustice: If the experience of middle children is any guide, no one will notice.
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