Birth order: middle SUCKS

While in the doctor’s office today, I read this article about the effects of birth order on kids in the family. Picking up TIME was possibly my first mistake, but this is the gist of the article.

Summary: Being the oldest kid rules. You get more attention and resources from your parents. Older kids are smarter and more successful. Sometimes youngest kids learn coping skills like clowning around and getting along with people, but did we mention that being the oldest kid rules? By the way, does anyone know what the middle kid is up to? What, do we have a middle kid?


I find it both amusing and infuriating that the article mentioned that middle kids have a huge set of challenges–mostly getting themselves noticed and forming their identities–in only a few paragraphs. It demonstrated exactly the effect they were describing.


Here’s what the article says about middle kids:

If eldest sibs are the dogged achievers and youngest sibs are the gamblers and visionaries, where does this leave those in between? That it’s so hard to define what middle-borns become is largely due to the fact that it’s so hard to define who they are growing up. The youngest in the family, but only until someone else comes along, they are both teacher and student, babysitter and babysat, too young for the privileges of the firstborn but too old for the latitude given the last. Middle children are expected to step up to the plate when the eldest child goes off to school or in some other way drops out of the picture—and generally serve when called. The Norwegian intelligence study showed that when firstborns die, the IQ of second-borns actually rises a bit, a sign that they’re performing the hard mentoring work that goes along with the new job.

Stuck for life in a center seat, middle children get shortchanged even on family resources. Unlike the firstborn, who spends at least some time as the only-child eldest, and the last-born, who hangs around long enough to become the only-child youngest, middlings are never alone and thus never get 100% of the parents’ investment of time and money. “There is a U-shaped distribution in which the oldest and youngest get the most,” says Sulloway. That may take an emotional toll. Sulloway cites other studies in which the self-esteem of first-, middle- and last-borns is plotted on a graph and follows the same curvilinear trajectory.

The phenomenon known as de-identification may also work against a middle-born. Siblings who hope to stand out in a family often do so by observing what the elder child does and then doing the opposite. If the firstborn gets good grades and takes a job after school, the second-born may go the slacker route. The third-born may then de-de-identify, opting for industriousness, even if in the more unconventional ways of the last-born. A Chinese study in the 1990s showed just this kind of zigzag pattern, with the first child generally scoring high as a “good son or daughter,” the second scoring low, the third scoring high again and so on. In a three-child family, the very act of trying to be unique may instead leave the middling lost, a pattern that may continue into adulthood.


Now I want to declare middle kids as a protected class.

But seriously. This article hit home for me, especially the parts about de-identification. One major reason I’m a writer is that my older brother definitely wasn’t. It was one thing I could do better than him, even though I was smaller and younger.  And by writing disturbing, horrific stuff, I could differentiate myself from my adorable baby sister (did I mention she had cute blond curls?). While these aren’t the only factors in my writing, they’re definitely relevant.

Here’s my Christmas wish. If you know a middle child–one of your kids, or one of your siblings–go pay some special attention to them. Or call them up and just say hi. Life as a middle kid is really tough sometimes, and not everyone notices it.

If age-appropriate, get them a copy of The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo, which is Judy Blume’s first published book and the secret fantasy of middle kids everywhere. I treasured this book.

So who else is a middle kid?

5 thoughts on “Birth order: middle SUCKS

  1. I’m a middle child. My Writers of the Future story was called “Middle Child Syndrome” and was about a kid who finds out that a serial killer is in the neighborhood, targeting the oldest and youngest sibling in each family.

    Yeah…I don’t have a complex AT ALL. 🙂


  2. I’m not a middle (ahem, oldest, sorry!), but my parents were so conscious of the middle-child-issues that they tried their damndest to make sure that my two middle siblings were not ignored or set aside (I think this may also be part of why we were four instead of three– two middles means no one is really a middle?).

    Of the four of us, three of us (oldest, two middles) dropped out of college. The oldest (me) went back and graduated. I’m not sure either of the middles is going to go back. The youngest hasn’t dropped out yet and is scheduled to graduate in the spring. I guess that could be seen as the ‘I’m not going to do what the oldest has already done!’ bit. Hm.


  3. There’s other factors that can influence it, like gender and so on. Having more than 3 reduces the middle kid feeling (you see that someone else is middled like you!) and your parents sound like they were aware of the issue. Cool stuff though.


  4. Pingback: Vylar Kaftan » Blog Archive » 12 question meme

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