6.30am. The pitter patter of little feet. I can guess which feet. My early bird four-year-old. She climbs into bed to snuggle, and asks me what we’re doing today.
“Well, daddy is bringing your little brother swimming because he never gets to go normally, when you girls have classes. And in the afternoon, we’ve to bring your big sis to a party don’t we?”
As the words left my mouth, I realised yet again that my middle-child was well and truly a middle-child in every sense of the term.
So many of our day-to-day activities centre around my six-year-old, because she’s in school and does homework and has playdates and is invited to parties. Whereas my poor four-year-old just gets the crumbs – literally, cake crumbs and maybe the odd jelly from the party-bag.
And there are so many other activities that centre around my toddler. Because he’s a toddler and he’s still learning and he needs a lot of encouragement and … OK, he’s just the boss of everything.
Everyone has heard of middle-child-syndrome, but it’s surprising to watch it unfold in real life – to witness the inevitability; to realise that knowing of its existence since I was a child myself doesn’t enable me to prevent it.
The eldest gets attention. Of course. From the emergence of those tiny but life-changing lines on the pregnancy test, baby number one gets all our attention.
For me, this involved a pregnancy spent reading all the right books, eating all the right foods, and resting (remember resting?) My first baby was watched intently while she slept, and photographed like every day was London Fashion Week. Her clothes were new, her pram was new, her cot was new. Weaning to solids was a carefully planned project that included two books, specially designed ice-cube trays, a steamer, a blender, a lot of chopping and peeling, and more plastic, coloured bowls and spoons than your average Ikea.
My middle-child? The pregnancy was spent chasing a one-year-old and reading no books (of any kind). The newborn stage was spent chasing a one-year-old and using baby’s sleep time not to stare at her but to actually get things done. There are photos, but not quite so many, and she is rarely pictured on her own. Nothing was new – hand-me-downs all the way. And as for weaning; there may have been a lot of Ella’s Kitchen pouches involved.
My third child is my baby, He is two now, and he will still be my baby when he’s twenty-two. The fact that he’s a boy after two girls is possibly fuelling this. His two sisters are utterly besotted with him and he can do no wrong – even when he’s doing wrong. He breaks a toy or scribbles on some carefully drawn art-work and all hell breaks loose. For ten seconds. Then he cries (he has recently produced an admirable fake cry), and his big sisters run to hug him, to forgive him. Between the four of us, we will have him destroyed as the Irish are wont to say. But one look from the big blue eyes, one cheeky smile, one perfect hug with a squished up cheek and an “I wub you mummy”, and all is forgotten, all is forgiven. He’s only a baby after all.
So if middle-child syndrome stems from a lack of attention, then giving each child, including the middle child, one-on-one attention seems like a good solution. These days, with many siblings very close in age, as parents wait until their thirties then have all their children in a short space of time, it’s possibly more difficult to find ways to allocate individual attention. If like I did, you have a three month old and a twenty-three month old, they both need you – no way around that.
Another challenge is work – in so many families today both parents are working, so we have less time to give to our children in general, and therefore even fewer hours to dedicate to one-on-one time.
But on the flip-side, in previous generations, families were much larger – a middle child in a family of seven or nine surely had to shout much louder than my middle child does (though she does try). So yes, modern life brings challenges but it’s not as simple as that.
And certainly, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to say we shouldn’t overthink this – lots of “I’m a middle-child and I’m fine” comments from adults who have turned out to be confident, secure and well-balanced (except for the occasional “well you won’t find any photos of me as a child” comment or a retail therapy fixation borne out of a childhood spent in hand-me-downs)
So is it all just pop psychology – a fun talking point without much substance, or is there any science behind it? Parentology author and sociologist Dalton Conley says there is. According to Conley, if middle-children are not given particular attention to counteract it, they can be disadvantaged in their development. In theory, that’s a scary prospect. But in reality, most parents are aware of potential middle-child-syndrome, or at least are mindful of giving equal attention to all children regardless of where they fall in the family-order.
On the flip side, Katrin Schumann, co-author of The Secret Power of Middle Children, says that there are many advantages to being born in-between older and younger siblings.
“[Middle children] are social beings and great team-players” according to Schumann, who also says “They are excellent negotiators … used to not getting their own way and so they become savvy—skillful manipulators. They can see all sides of a question and are empathetic and judge reactions well. They are more willing to compromise and so they can argue successfully. Since they often have to wait around as kids, they’re more patient.”
Although the focus is very much on the positive, most of her research shows that middle children have developed particular traits precisely due to being somewhat neglected on the parental-attention scale, so it seems she and Conley are in agreement: for better for worse, middle children are missing out.
So what can parents do about it? There are no silver-bullet solutions – it’s really just down to common sense:
- Ensure your middle child has at least as much one-on-one time as your other children – more if necessary. Children thrive on individual attention; even a trip to the supermarket can feel very special to a small child if older and younger siblings aren’t there too.
- Don’t fall into the habit of always turning to your eldest (or youngest) child first during family conversations, for example, when arriving in from work and asking each child in turn how his or her day was.
- Praise your middle child for contributing suggestions and ideas, even if they’re not as practical or applicable of those of an older sibling – especially if said older sibling has a tendency to put down those suggestions or tease the middle-child.
So it comes down to being mindful. And the outcomes either way (Dalton Conley’s claims notwithstanding) are not so bad. Among many positives, middle-children as said to be more relaxed, less competitive, a little alternative. They are understanding, cooperative, flexible and fair. What’s not to love? Go hug a middle-child.
I’m delighted that this post is featured in the current (Autumn 2014) issue of Mums & Tots magazine. It was written a number of months back, which explains why the middle child in question was four-years-old and didn’t go to school. I’m sure it’s all going to change now that she’s five…