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Celebrating the Middle Child

Tracy Connor
Aug. 4, 2011

Who says middle children are unruly and resentful? New evidence shows they're super high-achievers. Here are 5 tips to help raise a middle child.

Conventional wisdom holds that middle children are saddled with so many issues they need their own syndrome. Caught between the beloved first child and the spoiled last one, they never get enough attention. Misbehavior, resentment and low self-esteem supposedly ensue.

It's right there in TV reruns: Jan's insecurity on the "Brady Bunch," Darlene Conner's biting sarcasm on "Roseanne," Stephanie Tanner's loneliness on "Full House."

But psychologist Catherine Salmon says that the stereotypes about middle children simply aren't true, arguing the birth order is linked to mostly positive traits.

Changing the Myth of the Middle Child
Her book, "The Secret Power of Middle Children", shows that middle children are actually brilliant negotiators, trailblazers and team players.

"There certainly are middle children who are bitter about their experience," says Salmon. "And those are the ones you hear about." She focuses instead on high-achieving middles: computer billionaire Bill Gates, the Dalai Lama, writer Ernest Hemingway, actress Julia Roberts and Madonna.

It's a myth that most U.S. presidents were first-borns, she says -- 52 percent of them were middle children, including Lincoln and Kennedy. And no wonder. Salmon says middle children are natural "justice seekers" because they are underdogs in the family, and good negotiators because they play middleman in family disputes. Middles are far more open to new and radical ideas than first-born children, according to one surprising study she cites. And their urge to be different from their siblings -- and thus carve out a unique place in the family -- translates into a maverick streak.

"To me, the takeaway for middle children is that even if you felt it was a disadvantage or didn't get the attention, it really was a positive," Salmon says. "It gives you skills you would not have otherwise. Recognize them and use them."

Parenting a Middle Child
Salmon says that when middles complain they didn't get enough attention, it's not their imagination. But they need to look on the bright side: less pressure, less over-parenting.

"Because parents have less expectation and less investment in their middle children, they escape a little of that," she says.

Laura Yoo, a mom of three in Los Angeles, says she realizes that being stuck between a very verbal, outgoing older brother and a little sister is a challenge for 5-year-old Julian.

"I always make sure to give Julian a chance to speak. I always ask Julian his opinion no matter what, and I always ask Julian first," she says. "I definitely try to spend as much alone time as I can with him."

Are you raising your own middle child? Here are five tips to help middle kids enhance the high achieving qualities they're already developing:

  1. Watch Outside Relationships
    Middles can be very social outside the family unit because that's where they seek and find the attention they miss at home. Don't be concerned about it, but do keep an eye out for negative peer pressure.

  2. Engage Them in Conversation
    Middle children can often be quieter than their siblings. Parents need to actively draw them out to get them to discuss their feelings.

  3. Applaud Them
    Take pains to recognize a middle-born's achievements because they crave this kind of positive attention. Earned compliments balance out the self-criticism that plagues some middles.

  4. Hand Over the Reins
    Make the middle kid the boss for a change. Let them decide where you'll eat dinner or which card game you'll play.

  5. Watch for Red Flags
    Middles don't usually seek attention in dramatic or alarming ways so when they need you or act out in a different manner, don't brush it off.

Jenna Lamond, who lives in upstate New York, says that while her middle child has some classic traits, she likes Salmon's theory that they will develop into assets later on.

"Let's put a positive spin on middle children!" she says. "Because how much of it is a self-fulfilling prophecy? "There's a myth about middle children and so the parents say, 'Oh, he's just behaving like a middle child' and the kid just lives up to it."

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