Middle children are MORE successful: That”s the surprising finding of new research. So is it true about your family
For decades, conventional wisdom has held that middle children — those born in between older and younger siblings — tend to have a hard time growing up.
Within their families, they are said to be neglected, underestimated and misunderstood. Their place in the birth order is seen as one of disadvantage, since they do not receive the same attention given by their parents to their siblings who, as first and last-borns, are showered with particularly intense attention.
Consequently, and according to the long-established stereotype, they supposedly become withdrawn, resentful and lacking in confidence.
Stuck in the middle: First and last-born children supposedly receive more parental attention than siblings born in the middle (Posed by models)
Middle children, so the thinking goes, are far more likely to become outsiders who enjoy nothing like the success or happiness of their brothers and sisters. This kind of analysis seemed to be reinforced by a recent study which revealed that eldest children are, on average, more prosperous than their younger siblings.
Indeed, when I began work on my new book about middle children, written with Dr Catherine Salmon, I was amazed at how much ill-feeling we encountered — not just in interviews we conducted with many middle children, but also in dozens of internet forums, where a host of middle children said they had in some way been abandoned by their parents.
A host of middle children said they had been abandoned by their parents, but much of this indignation is misplaced.
But much of this indignation is misplaced.
For, as we discovered during our research, the stereotype does not correspond to reality. Far from being doomed to failure and loneliness, middle children are more likely than their siblings to be successful and enjoy strong social lives and flourishing careers.
The apparent disadvantages they endure in childhood turn out to be beneficial, in many cases giving them the attributes of empathy, independence, articulacy and creativity. Many of our biggest celebrities, such as the film star Julia Roberts, are ‘middles’.
Rising to the top: Billionaire Bill Gates had the disadvantage of being a middle child
One of the most successful entrepreneurs of modern times, the Microsoft genius Bill Gates, is also a middle. His remarkable ability to think outside the box and take moderate risks are attributes often found in middle-borns.
And consider this: of all the U.S. Presidents since 1787, no fewer than 52 per cent were middle children.
This is not only a far higher proportion than the numbers in the overall population, but also confounds a conventional belief that eldest sons are always the strongest personalities and therefore natural-born leaders.
The list of presidential middles includes political giants such as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
In fact, Kennedy, during his brilliant but all-too-brief career, displayed several of the qualities associated with high-achieving middle children: communication skills, a gift for friendship, a powerful sense of justice, coolness under pressure and an ability to negotiate. This was reflected in his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when he saved mankind from possible nuclear annihilation.
Tony Blair is also a middle child and, whatever you think of his politics, his mix of charisma, eloquence and empathy were crucial both in bringing Labour back to power and in negotiating the peace deal in Northern Ireland.
Beating the odds: U.S. Presidents Abraham Lincoln (left) and John F. Kennedy succeeded in the cutthroat world of politics
But another aspect of middle children’s personalities is an eagerness to please — born out of their efforts in childhood to gain attention — which can mean they are too easily influenced by friends.
More than half of U.S. presidents were “middles”
That could certainly be said of Tony Blair over the Iraq War, when he seemed to be guided more by George W. Bush than by his country’s national interests.
The importance of a child’s position in the family birth order has long been recognised.
A vast number of studies show it is almost as crucial as genetic influences. But traditionally, the problem lies in the interpretation of the data, with too much emphasis put on the negative consequences of arriving in the middle.
The age gap between siblings can make an enormous difference to their personality and behaviour. Typically, siblings born within five years of each other will be most affected, as they vie for parental attention.
Eager to please: Tony Blair is a middle child but George W. Bush is not. Did that fact play a part in their relationship
There is, of course, little doubt that middle children can be marginalised within families during their formative years. Eldest children are treated very differently, partly because their parents are going through the child-rearing experience for the first time, and partly because they initially have no sibling rivals, so they receive all of their parents’ attention.
They become the focus for all their parents’ hopes and fears, the prototype for the rest of the family.
Middles are independent and fair-minded
In contrast, by the time the third — or fourth — child arrives, parents tend to be far more relaxed about child rearing. The family unit is already well established.
So the youngest is often indulged, even spoilt, not least because the parents have often decided that this child will be their last.
This sense of indulgence often persists even when the youngest has grown up. Even adults in their 40s can be regarded by the family as ‘the baby’, an attitude that does nothing for their natural resilience.
Yet the sense of indifference from parents and isolation that ‘middles’ feel as children can actually serve them well in later life. The trials they go through, such as having to speak up to ensure they are not ignored, are good preparation for adulthood.
As our research found, middle children tend to have high degrees of patience, perhaps because they spend so much of their time in childhood waiting their turn.
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They have to bide their time and wait while the first-born gets to star in the school nativity play, or they wait while the last-born’s paraphernalia is piled into the car. So they learn the art of delayed gratification, one of the true measures of civilised behaviour.
Interacting with those older and younger than them, they also learn the art of compromise. Less egocentric than the pioneering eldest or the coddled youngest, middles generally have a high degree of empathy, loyalty and the ability to see other people’s point of view.
That is perhaps why, contrary to the received wisdom, they are more successful at relationships. In one of our studies, we found that 80 per cent of middle-borns remain faithful to their partners, compared to 65 per cent of first-borns and just 53 per cent of last-borns — perhaps because the latter are used to getting their own way, which, as we know, doesn’t always happen in a serious relationship.
We also discovered that, for all their fidelity to their spouses, middles are often open-minded about sex and non-judgmental about others’ behaviour.
But there is a downside to this. Because middles are sandwiched between siblings and so have always had to try to please everyone as the diplomat of the family, they dislike confrontation and may shy away from frank discussions about serious problems in a relationship — a lack of honesty that can store up problems for the future.
Agents of change: Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King are typical of middle children who are determined to confront injustice
Understandably, middles are less attached to family hierarchies than their siblings, probably because they may not have such warm memories of family life. They often attach more weight to friendships and to the opinions of their peers than those of their elders.
They tend to be less close to their parents and, in contrast to their siblings, are more likely to move away from the neighbourhood where they grew up.
But that does not mean they do not want families of their own.
In our groundbreaking study of 300 siblings, we found that 99 per cent of middles want to have their own children, and revel in the sprawling, noisy exuberance of family life.
Tellingly, despite the experience of their childhoods, they do not favour their own middle children but instead lay a great emphasis on fairness between all their offspring. Indeed, this attachment to fairness is one of the most striking features of middle children.
That is perhaps why so many of the more ambitious of them become reforming politicians or agents for social change — because they are determined to confront injustice.
The hero of the anti-apartheid struggle Nelson Mandela, the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, the Polish campaigner against Soviet tyranny, Lech Walesa, and the architect of Egypt’s peace with Israel in the Seventies, Anwar Sadat, were all middles.
Along with fairness, middles can also be robustly independent, partly as a result of having to strive to find their own niche within the family structure.
They are often infused with a freedom of spirit, a desire to break with conformity, which is why they can be so successful in the creative arts — just look at the careers of the great actor Richard Burton or the writer Ernest Hemingway.
So there is no need for despondency or resentment among middle children. Their position, with its road to independence, has perhaps put them in the luckiest position of all.
Katrin Schumann is an educational consultant and co-author of The Secret Power Of Middle Children.