The Secret Power of Middle Children
How Middleborns Can Harness Their Unexpected and RemarkableAbilities
This myth-busting book shows how "forgotten" middle children can-and do-rule the world.
In this counterintuitive book, psychologist Catherine Salmon and journalist Katrin Schumann combine science, history, and real-life stories to reveal for the first time that our perception of middle children is dead wrong.
Using unpublished and little-known research from evolutionary psychology, sociology, and communications, The Secret Power of Middle Children illustrates how adaptive strategies middleborns develop during childhood translate into stronger friendships, lasting marriages, successful careers, and effective parenting.
Over seventy million adult Americans are middle children, and forty percent of young American families have middle children. With constructive advice on how to maximize the benefits and avoid the pitfalls of being a middle child, Salmon and Schumann help middle children at any age (and their parents) use birth order as a strategy for success.
In a family picture that I particularly treasure, there are four people sitting on a couch in a cozy suburban living room. It's Christmas in a steelworkers' town; outside, three-foot-high banks of snow press against the siding, and glacial winds whistle over Lake Ontario. I'm there at the feet of the grown-ups: nine years old, with a halo of white-blonde hair and a grin on my face. As usual, I'm a blur of motion.
Elvis is sitting just behind me. His gleaming teeth are bright against his dark brown skin, and his borrowed winter clothes fit him a little awkwardly. Two more African engineering students are perched next to Elvis, and then, right in the middle, is my Caucasian father—the middle child who had such a defining impact on my life and my work.
My hometown in Canada was full of mill workers of Anglo-Saxon and Italian descent. Rarely did you see a dark face among the crowd, and most people (including my mother) didn't even think about seeking exposure to other cultures. But my father was different. An engineering professor at the local college, he thought nothing of inviting Elvis and his lonely friends over for Christmas dinner. They were far from home, in a strange, ice-cold land, and my father was kindhearted. He was also fascinated by the unfamiliar.
Not that Dad had grown up that way. He was the third son in a family of four boys and had spent his childhood working on his family's farm in eastern Canada. Yet, as a child who sought to define himself in contrast to his siblings—a middleborn who refused to be lost in the crowd—he became an extraordinary man who embodied so many of the strengths I see in middle children around me. He was a unique person: open-minded, empathetic, patient, driven, loyal, and, frankly, intriguing. I remember him inventing machines, bringing novel characters into the house, and always allowing me to be myself. Since he himself was an independent thinker, he encouraged me to be independent, too. This ended up being critical as both my mother and father passed away before I finished my Ph.D. It was because of him that I—the youngest of two—focused my life's work on middleborns. Because my father was a middle, I just knew there was more to these children than they were being given credit for.
My close friend Leslie is also a middle child. She's one of several in her family of five and is the kind of friend you can always count on. Her positive qualities are legion: She's reliable, generous, kind, and dedicated. But over the years she's made me realize that middles also face certain pitfalls. While Leslie would drive for hours to help someone out, this generosity isn't always reciprocated by friends or even coworkers. She has a terrible time saying no and finds self-advocating challenging. Too often her feelings get hurt.
Leslie is a prime example of how the positive traits of being a middle child can sometimes come back to bite them: Loyalty and generosity can be taken to extremes. I've watched her suffer needlessly, although as she's matured, she's begun to see a pattern emerging in her relationships and has become better at considering her own needs.
These personal experiences set the stage for what would soon become a professional passion of mine. For years I've been perplexed by the fact that the middleborns I've encountered in my own life and middles throughout history seem so capable and accomplished, whereas people's perceptions of them tell a very different story. It became clear to me that middle children are not well understood, and so I turned my attention to them with greater focus.
After more than a decade of research I've come to the conclusion that it's time to shepherd middleborns into the limelight. With this book I'd like to help them not only discover and appreciate their many unheralded positive qualities but also understand how to best put them to use in their daily lives. Middle children are multifaceted and capable, and they face some unique challenges. By highlighting the realities behind the myth, this book will show middles and their parents, friends, and partners how to avoid some of the traps middles can fall into. It will be a practical guide but also full of inspiration and insight. I am the first researcher to take scientific data, historical analysis, profiles of well-known figures as well as real-life anecdotes of ordinary middles, and interpret all this information specifically in respect to middle children. I've spent the past ten years unraveling the myth of the middle child in order to reveal a truer, more complete picture. This book you're holding is the result of that effort.
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.
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"?
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:
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.
THE ROOTS OF OUR FASCINATION WITH BIRTH ORDER
People have been interested in birth order for a long time. Back in 1874, Francis Galton wrote English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture. He was interested in the relationship between birth order and achievement, and discovered that birth order did in fact influence eminence. You only need to look at how many Nobel Prize winners, classical composers, and prominent psychologists have been firstborns to recognize that there's some truth to this. But did this mean laterborns were less gifted and capable than firsts, or simply that firstborns of his time—males in particular—benefited from more resources than other birth orders?
A few decades later, Alfred Adler, an Austrian doctor, founded the school of individual psychology. Adler is perhaps best known for influencing the disciplines of counseling and psychotherapy, but he was also the first famous birth order researcher. The second of seven children, he was a popular kid, but only an average student. As a boy Adler was extremely competitive with his older brother, Sigmund. In his later writings he emphasized the idea that birth order had long-lasting effects on individual development.
Firstborns, in Adler's view, benefited from being the sole focus of love and nurturing within their families until the birth of a second child. He used the term "dethronement" to describe the firstborns' experience when a sibling comes along. In a three-child family, the oldest was seen as most likely to suffer from neuroticism and substance abuse as they attempt to compensate for excessive responsibility and loss of their pampered position. Adler suggested that firsts would be most likely to end up in jail or suffer from mental affliction (quite the opposite of the kinds of conclusions Galton had arrived at). The youngest was thought to be overindulged, which would lead to poor social empathy.
And middleborns? Since they don't suffer from either dethronement or overindulgence, Adler believed they'd be the most successful of all birth orders. While his attention to middles as an individual group was admirable, his ideas were based exclusively on his own clinical observations and anecdotal evidence.
In more recent history, birth order became a hot topic, leading to a veritable explosion of research in the second half of the twentieth century. But there was no strong theoretical basis for most of these studies and their predictions. In fact, so many hundreds of studies were published that in 1983, Swiss researchers Ernst and Angst conducted a scathing review of all the birth order and personality research published between 1946 and 1980, suggesting birth order effects were minimal at best. This put a serious crimp in further research for years to come.
BUT THEN THE GROUND SHIFTED
All this time no one was asking why. Why do specific birth orders reflect certain personality traits and behaviors? Is there a purpose to this? Why—rather than how—are siblings from the same family so different? Why does one child conform and the other rebel? Frank Sulloway, now a visiting scholar at the Institute of Personality and Social Research at the University of California at Berkeley, changed all that.
Because of his attention to detail and the theory-testing orientation of his work, Sulloway started a revolution in the way we think about birth order. He examined all the studies among Ernst and Angst's 1946 – 1980 sample that controlled for social class and number of siblings. In contrast to their earlier results, he found modest but consistent patterns of birth order effects. In particular he noted that the trends were strongest for the personality traits of openness to experience and conscientiousness: Laterborns were more unconventional and adventurous, and firstborns were more conscientious than laterborns. This was just as he'd expected.
Sulloway's work supports the notion that personality development has its origins in the family environment, which isn't experienced the same way by each child. In his book Born to Rebel, he posits that birth order differences have consequences at a societal level as well, not just among family. His general perspective hasn't gone unchallenged, however. Judith Rich Harris, a scholar with an interest in child development, disagrees strongly with his emphasis on the family environment as a shaper of personality; she argues that the peer group influence is the most crucial. She has written about this at length in her books The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality.
So, just as I was engaging in my own specialized research, the birth order debate was heating up again, and I was right in the thick of it.
WHY BIRTH ORDER MATTERS
Where do I fall in terms of believing in the influence of birth order? While I certainly agree that peers play a significant role in shaping young people's behavior, I think it's a mistake to discount the influence of parents—and particularly parental attention or lack thereof—on young children. Without a doubt younger children whose personalities are just beginning to take form are more influenced by their parents than are teenagers. Children are not passively shaped by their peers; they actively choose their friends. As we'll see later in the book, however, middleborns may indeed be more susceptible to peer influences than their siblings.
Although some psychologists continue to be skeptical about the reality of birth order effects, studies demonstrate substantial differences between firstborns and laterborns in the five basic personality traits:
These five dimensions surface time after time in personality tests, regardless of the country or the language in which the tests are administered. While the results can be somewhat variable because of the way answers are presented and scored, they reveal strong consistencies that, in my opinion, support the notion that birth order has a tangible impact on the development of an individual's character.
In addition, were researchers to focus more specifically on individual birth orders rather than lumping middles with lastborns as they so often do, we'd be able to pinpoint differences with greater clarity and detail. Years ago as I began my own work on birth order and family, it quickly became clear to me that middles deserve to be in their own distinct group: They're radically different from firsts and also from lasts. I saw evidence of middle children following a social strategy that was different from their siblings—strategies that reflect the unique challenges of their childhood environment.
I thought often of my own father whose open-mindedness and patience presented an alternative image of middles than the one that is culturally accepted. That's why I'm so fond of that old photo—the one that shows a smiling African Elvis, and a little blonde-haired girl who would grow up to be fascinated by what makes us turn out the way we do.
EVERY CHILD SEARCHES FOR A NICHE
What is it, then, 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-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.
THE ART OF DIVERSIFICATION BETWEEN SIBLINGS
Children are notoriously sensitive. All it takes is one negative comparison with a sibling for that child to seek different interests. But even when the comparisons aren't negative, there's still a strong pull toward creating your own special identity.
The boys on the farm during my father's childhood were peas in a pod. They looked fairly similar, were of average height and build, and had baby-smooth faces, dark brown hair, and dark brown eyes (and, later on, receding hairlines!). Yet, as they matured, their paths diverged more and more. The oldest was stalwart, responsible, and serious. The second in line was a bit more of a social animal. When he injured himself and couldn't continue with farm life, he happily turned to the world of real estate.
And then there was my father. Since those above him in the family hierarchy weren't great students and didn't show much interest in the larger world, he chose an academic path. An excellent student, he threw himself into his studies. When he became fascinated by mechanics and began dissecting machines and building contraptions, his parents tolerated his divergent interests. As a middle child he was inclined to march to the tune of his own drum. The youngest, in turn, differentiated himself from my father by remaining to this day working the farm he grew up on.
Had my father's older brothers been better students, my dad might have gravitated more toward athletics or chosen an academic specialty that was markedly different from theirs. The point is that all children in all families seek to diversify their interests in an effort to get more parental attention.
In most social species where there's competition for resources, dominance hierarchies form. Think of the pecking order in birds. Once individuals know their position, there's no need for overt aggression: The dominant one has priority, followed by the next in the pecking order. In dominance hierarchies, the strategies that siblings adopt in order to deal with competition for resources is influenced by differences in size and strength, and these are usually related to age. Older siblings are able to intimidate their younger and smaller brothers and sisters physically. Because of this dynamic, firstborns often become dominant and assertive. And when parents are aware of and discourage these types of physical strategies, firstborns try to express their dominance through status and position in the family. They attempt to do this by meeting parental demands and expectations. As a result, they're often put in a position of authority over their younger sibling(s), a pseudo-parental authority niche unto itself.
Typically, the youngest sibling is best served by low power strategies. Rather than physical force or the threat of it, the baby of the family often appeals directly to the parent in a sibling dispute. We've all experienced the whiny baby sister who runs straight to her parents when the older siblings exclude her or the little boy who throws a tantrum when his siblings won't share.
Where does this leave middleborns? They're typically forced to negotiate on their own, without the parental support given to the youngest. As we'll see, this dynamic leads to the development of numerous abilities that end up greatly benefiting middles in the long run.
Diversifying strategies lets each sibling find his or her own niche in the family, and reduces direct sibling competition. This process is likely to lead to greater differences between siblings who are next to each other in birth order, such as the first and secondborn, as opposed to the first and thirdborn. We can see this at play in my father's family. Despite being a lastborn, his younger brother was actually less rebellious and willing to take risks than my father was. And since eldest siblings often occupy the role of surrogate parent with its sense of responsibility and adherence to rules, for laterborns there's no advantage to trying to duplicate that role. Consequently, my father felt less pressure to follow the expected path—the one that led right back to the farmlands of southern Ontario.
BUT WHAT'S SO IMPORTANT ABOUT PARENTAL INVESTMENT?
Many animal species don't engage in parental care at all. On the other hand, human parents provide not only the basic physical means for survival (food, shelter, and protection) but they also invest in fostering the development of skills that are required for their children's success across their entire life span. Think for a moment about parental care in other species: Some invest very little, and some invest a lot. Turtles, for example, lay eggs and never even see their babies. Lions and wolves show their offspring how to catch their own food, and bears are ferociously protective of their cubs for many months after birth.
Humans invest in their offspring for reasons that are often based on cultural mores. Not all that long ago, primogeniture was the principal system of inheritance. This meant that in a family of four children, in which the first and second child are girls, the third a boy, and the last another girl, the thirdborn child—or firstborn boy—would inherit the entire family estate. That child, regardless of his birth order, would get more attention from the parents than the others. Yet today we don't feel very comfortable with the idea that parents treat their children differently. Most modern cultures share an ideal of equal distribution in parenting, though of course this doesn't mean that this ideal is always realized. In fact, historical evidence, as well as evidence from contemporary tribal societies, suggests that parental resources are frequently parceled out unequally.
Biologist Robert Trivers first explained the notion of "parental investment" in an offspring. The more time, money, and/or affection a parent invests in his or her child, the greater likelihood that child will survive and later be able to reproduce. But this investment naturally comes at the cost of the parent's ability to invest in the other children, whether current siblings or future ones. In birds we conceive of this in terms of feeding and nest protection. In people it covers a wide range of activities from food and shelter to an education, piano lessons, or figure skating.
As you can imagine, a child's fitness usually increases with the amount of parental care he or she receives. Extremely low levels of parental investment can even result in death since a minimum amount is required for survival. But at very high levels of investment there's also a point of diminishing returns, beyond which children are unable to make use of any further investment. This scenario plays itself out daily in our family lives. Let's say Johnny, a firstborn, is a decent skater but doesn't really love the sport and won't ever make his school's varsity ice hockey team. In his case, extra practices and hockey camps cease to be very helpful or fun. In fact, the focus on Johnny's hockey can begin to backfire if his specific talents and desires aren't considered. Johnny's younger sister, Joan, the middle child, typically gets overlooked (that is, there's very little investment in her) because Sue, the baby, can't survive without constant attention. (Parents must, by necessity, invest highly in an infant.) There's an opportunity for parents here if they can recognize it: At some point parental effort and attention should shift from Johnny to Joan, the middle. Since in this scenario there's likely to be poor return on the investment in the firstborn, and the baby is utterly dependent on parental care, there will be greater overall benefit if the middle gets a share of the investment. There's bound to be an activity that Joan would be delighted to have the chance to pursue if she only had some more of her parents' time and encouragement.
SURVIVAL OF THE "FITTEST"
Of course, it's not just cultural traditions that have an impact on family dynamics. Basic biological impulses play a crucial (if somewhat hidden) role, too. Lying behind so much of our instinctive and learned behavior is the profound and unequivocal desire to survive. Parents who invest highly in children who are unlikely to reach maturity and have babies would soon be out-reproduced by those parents who invest highly in those offspring most likely to provide babies down the road. These children are more valuable in this sense because they are perpetuating parental genetics by providing grandchildren, thereby increasing the genetic representation of their family in the future.
This is called reproductive value. It's a term used to describe the likelihood of future reproduction and plays a role in the "value" of a specific child. Reproductive value increases with age until puberty, so that older, immature kids are actually more valuable than younger ones as a result of infant mortality, etc.
In a way, firsts have a biological lock on their parents' attention. They then perpetuate this by becoming defenders of parental values and the status quo, while laterborns are more likely to be rebellious.
But the age of the parents is critical, too. As parents grow older, the fitness value of any one child increases while the parents' remaining reproductive value decreases. Because parents' chances of having more babies drop quite dramatically with age, older parents tend to invest more in their children than younger parents. More surviving babies leads to more healthy children, which results in an increased likelihood of healthy adults who can produce their own babies—and ultimately a greater chance that the old parents will be taken care of.
Younger mothers are much more likely than older mothers to kill an infant (controlling for other factors such as marital status and resource availability). This is because younger mothers have a greater likelihood of getting pregnant again, and so they'll have many more future opportunities to reproduce. For older mothers, however, this may be their last chance to have a child.
Let's explore what this means for middles and lasts. While firstborns clearly have an inherent advantage in terms of parental investment, older parents are increasingly willing to invest highly in their lastborn—who represents their last chance, so to speak. In fact, lastborns are the only birth order to receive their parental investment without the competing demands of a younger sibling.
This suggests that middleborns will lose out in terms of parental investment and attention, an important theme that I'll return to in later chapters.
WHEN SIBLINGS BECOME RIVALS
The masked booby is a nesting seabird that breeds on islands in tropical areas. Their nests are shallow indents in the sand, and in each one there are only ever two eggs at a time. When the first egg hatches, all is well—at least, initially.
Within a few days of the second egg's hatching, the older chick forces its sibling out of the warmth and safety of the nest. The smaller chick then dies of exposure or starvation on the sandy beach. Meanwhile, the masked booby parents tolerate this siblicide, either because they can't prevent it or because it's in the best interests of the parents themselves as well as the surviving chick.
But there's a closely related species, the blue-footed booby, which reacts quite differently. When a blue-booby chick is placed in a masked booby's nest, the firstborn masked booby will kill the intruder, just as it would kill its sibling. When a masked chick is placed in a blue-nest, however, the foster parents prevent the masked booby from killing the other chick. This is presumably because in this species the benefits to parents of having both chicks survive outweigh the cost to the first chick, from a parental fitness perspective.
The comparison is interesting, but obviously humans are nothing like these birds: Our children don't generally try to kill their brothers and sisters. Intense sibling conflict over parental love and attention does occur, though, especially when children are young and close in age. A professor of mine once told a story that made me laugh but also stuck with me over the years. When he was four years old, his seven-year-old sister took him into the backyard and told him to lie down in a hole. Her plan was to shovel enough dirt over her younger brother to put an end to his irritating presence once and for all. He was confused; even when the dirt hit him, he didn't realize what his sister's plan was. The plot was foiled by their mother, and he ended up safe and sound. But the instinctive impulse to grab parental attention was still powerful enough that an idea was hatched whereby his older sister would be able hang on to her coveted spot in the family.
Evolutionary psychologists and biologists, like me, expect mothers and fathers to invest more time and pay more attention to those children who will bring benefits to the parents in the long run. We also expect that offspring will have a different take on the matter. Because biological brothers and sisters share only half of their genes, on average, there's a natural limit to sibling cooperation, and they'll most likely have different views on the allocation of parental resources.
While parents may do their best to encourage equal sharing, children will generally prefer a larger portion of the pie for themselves (sometimes, as we all know, literally). As a result, we shouldn't be surprised when parents and offspring disagree over whether there's been a fair and equal distribution of resources among any particular brood of children. Sibling conflict or rivalry is a frequent occurrence and another major player in birth order differences. This is something middles talk about frequently—and usually with some bitterness. They almost always think of themselves in relation to their siblings, not as freestanding individuals.
Middle children grow up in the shadow of their older sibling and can't help but see themselves as rivals. This may be unwittingly encouraged by the parents and even by the older sibling. Then when the baby of the family is born or the next child comes along, this rivalry is diluted somewhat by the presence of the new rival for attention. The middle is no longer the baby and now needs to find his or her place in a new family configuration. Middleborns are not sure how to define their role in the family—the biggest source of frustration and misunderstanding for middle children.
WHAT THIS BOOK SEEKS TO ACHIEVE
It becomes evident rather quickly when reading the literature on birth order that firstborns get the most attention from academics, but you'll soon discover that middleborns have some interesting qualities hidden up their sleeves.
Middles often have little idea of how they use their family experiences to develop strategies that lead them to success later in life. And parents of middles don't often think of their middle children as so distinct and capable. It's my belief that once these unexpected and remarkable abilities are recognized and encouraged, middles—as well as their parents, friends, and lovers—can all benefit immensely. As I began turning my focus on middles a little over a decade ago, I amassed more and more information. I published articles, gathered stories, and then came to realize that the secret powers I was uncovering were almost completely unrecognized by the general public.
This is the book that will help middle children untangle reality from myth. It seeks to shed light on the hidden strengths of middles and show them how to exploit these strengths, while also helping them recognize and overcome their weaknesses. It will help explain the past, the present, and the future with a focus on their own unique experiences.
For parents this research will show them how their child can flourish in a hectic family environment by helping them determine which traits or activities to encourage and which to discourage. In this book I address questions such as these: My first child demands all my attention, and the baby ends up getting all my attention. What can I do to make sure my middle child feels loved? Should I insist on more one-on-one time? What does the future hold for this mysterious and complicated child of mine? This book seeks to provide a support mechanism for mothers and fathers, revealing how the life skills that develop as a consequence of being squeezed in the family hierarchy as a middle child end up turning these youngsters into responsible, gregarious, self-motivated adults. By doing so, surprising lessons for parents may appear on how to raise their other children. Many of the insights that parents can glean from this exploration of middle children lie in the startling realization that parental "neglect" is not always bad.
This book is divided into two parts. In the first part I use historical analysis, academic research, and case studies from celebrities as well as regular folk to throw light on the hidden traits of middles that have previously been overlooked. It's fascinating and empowering to see how many well-known figures from history and modern culture are middleborns and to analyze how their abilities developed as a result of their middle child status.
The second half is prescriptive and practical: I turn the spotlight on middle children in action, exploring how their particular characteristics affect their everyday lives in work, play, and love. Here I look at what middleborns need to know to make smart long-term career decisions as well as which personal relationships work best for them and which don't. I analyze how parents are doing raising their middleborns and offer ideas on where to focus their energy. And for the very first time I compile and interpret pioneering research on how middleborns parent their own children.
It's been a fascinating journey of discovery for me, and I hope it will be for you, too.
“Powerful advice … anchored in hard science and illuminated by vivid case examples.” — David M. Buss, author of Evolutionary Psychology
“Entertaining and provocative.” — Frank J. Sulloway, author of Born to Rebel
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