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The Making of My Middle Child

By Caitlin Murray Giles

How do you turn a gregarious, happy-go-lucky three year-old boy into a disgruntled, emotional wreck? It's simple really. Just add another baby to your family and make him a middle child. Then you can watch birth order stereotypes play out right under your own roof.

The birth of my third child in December 2008 brought many changes to our family. I knew that adding more kids meant that my husband and I were going to have to work harder to meet (or at least try to meet) everyone's needs. I anticipated that my two older kids would do what they had to do to get their fair share of attention. But I did not fully understand what this change would mean for my three year-old son. He went from being the doted-upon baby of our family to the middle child and he has quickly embraced his new role.

No offense to all of you middle children out there, but this is not a good thing.

When I googled "middle child personality traits," there was more bad news than good. Apparently, middle children never feel that they have their parent's undivided attention. They supposedly feel unloved, left out or "squeezed." A child that is the middle of three children may feel like life is unfair. He may become discouraged and think of himself as the "problem child." I even came across this tongue-in-cheek definition for something called “middle child syndrome:

"Middle child syndrome is often characterized by: lack of friends (a loner), inability to maintain relationships, extreme creativity (writing, music, art, etc.), an easy going personality, trouble choosing a career path, trouble maintaining a career, quick loss of interest in things, negative outlook on life, half-assing, and indecisiveness."

I mean, it's nice to be creative and easy going, but who wants an indecisive “half-asser” on their hands?

Psychologists and researchers disagree over whether birth order really has a lasting impact on personality development, but we can all cite anecdotal evidence that it does. My husband and I are both fairly stereotypical firstborns. Same goes for our first-born daughter.

My son just seems like a very different little boy since he became a middle. Before our new baby was born, he was predictably sweet and easy. Even his birth was easy (one push, thank you very much). He was a great eater and an even better sleeper. If I said put it down, or bring it to Mommy, or please hold my hand, or spit it out, he complied. He was happy to share his toys at play groups and freely gave out hugs and kisses.

Since becoming a middle, my little guy seems unsatisfied with his lot in life. He is grumpy. And he is trying to tell me in every possible way that he isn't getting what he needs. Sometimes he is literally screaming it -- like when he sits by himself on the living room floor surrounded by toys shouting, "WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE PLAY WITH ME!" Or when I ask him to talk quietly so he doesn't wake the baby and he screams, "I NO WANNA SHHHHHHH!" until he does in fact succeed in waking the baby. Other times the message is more subtle -- like when he overflows the bathroom sink for the twentieth time and waits for me to discover his handiwork, smiling from ear to ear.

Part of me thinks that all of this birth order talk is just silly. If he were our only child, would he be any different? Or maybe he is just a typical three year old exploring new behaviors, boundaries and moods. But other times it seems pretty obvious that the change in our family dynamics is responsible for the change in him.

Don't get me wrong -- this is still my sweet little boy -- baby, middle or whatever. And the kid is only three so I think it is too early to say whether he is going to have employment or relationship problems. But as much as I reassure myself that he gets all sorts of other benefits from having two siblings, I recognize that being sandwiched between an attention-hogging older sister and a needy baby brother is not such a great thing sometimes.

So for now, I am making more time for him and his toys on the living room floor, laying off the SHHHHishes, and looking forward to the time when it is my new baby overflowing the bathroom sink.

Caitlin Murray Giles is a freelance writer and mother of three living in Chicago. Read more about her adventures with her little ones at A Hen and Two Three Chicks. She will also be writing for the Wee Windy City blog in Chicago, which launches later this week. If you are interested in guest blogging in On Parenting, please e-mail

By Stacey Garfinkle |  June 17, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Guest Blogs
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Middle children are obviously perceptive.

"Apparently, middle children never feel that they have their parent's undivided attention." CORRECT

They supposedly feel unloved, left out or "squeezed." C0RRECT

"A child that is the middle of three children may feel like life is unfair." IT IS

He may become discouraged and think of himself as the "problem child."

Posted by: Blabbalot | June 17, 2009 8:16 AM | Report abuse

We have three children under the age of 5 (the youngest just turned 1). Our middle child is the sole daughter and I think that uniqueness alone will more than make up for any "middle-child syndrome." :)

Posted by: CentreofNowhere | June 17, 2009 8:29 AM | Report abuse

Actually I think a lot can be said about birth order. But so much goes into that mix. Such as the gender mix of the kids, the number of years between children, the total number of children.

I have two kids and I often feel as if both children are compromised when they are with one parent. With two parents, you can each take a child and meet their current needs. But when I have my kids alone, they have to learn to be patient.

In the long run, I think this is good for kids. I often think for middle class families, having three kids is actually better for their development. I think learning to be patient, not getting all the material things you desire, and not always having things be set up to be even is a good life lesson.
With three kids, you can barely keep your head and your sanity above water. There usually is not enough money to give them just about everything they desire (and that is a good thing). Parents definitely don't have the time to induluge the children all the time. Sometimes a kid does miss out on Mommy and Daddy showering them with attention and this is also a good life lesson. I also think when there is three or more kids, you just give up everything needs to be exactly even. With two kids, people tend to do a lot to make things even. Like give out a similar amount of stuff at holidays and birthdays, if one gets an ice cream cone the other surely gets one too, try to keep milestone rewards equal. I think you just can't keep all that data in your head with 3+ kids. In the long run, this is good for kids because most of life does not come out even and kids need to learn that.
Caitlin, I think a new baby is always a rough adjustment. I am sure your daughter felt a little displaced when her middle brother joined the family. But overall your boy will be just fine.
Probably the only thing to make it beter is have a fourth. Then your middle child would at least have company in his misery. :)

Posted by: foamgnome | June 17, 2009 8:41 AM | Report abuse

2 thoughts. First, this sounds a lot like what happened to my firstborn when our second arrived (well, not immediately after -- more like when he became mobile enough to start taking her toys!).

Second, that little one himself has only recently hit the "terribles." He was a dream child throughout his twos, happy, smiling, easygoing, etc. Then, a week before his third birthday, the first tantrum hit. Now, at 3 1/2, he's just horrible -- like you said, not all the time, but the change from happiest cutest kid in the world to shrieking demon from hell takes place in 0.3 seconds flat, over the most insubstantial-seeming things.

In short, a lot of this may be natural age-and-new-baby stuff.

I would also caution you against focusing too hard on the whole "middle child" thing as some sort of fate. Biology is not destiny. But we create what we expect to see; if you see him as "middle child," that's how he will learn to see himself. Playing with the ideas, having interesting discussions like these, all fine; just don't get too caught up in all the hype. Post hoc ergo propter hoc and all that (or as we like to say here, correlation does not equal causation).

Posted by: laura33 | June 17, 2009 9:01 AM | Report abuse

Our third child (third daughter) is two months old, and I see NONE of this in my middle daughter. In fact, she regularly thanks me for having a baby. She loves holding the baby and we do let her, even if we hover anxiously. A boppy is great for helping her hold the baby on her lap.
We also make sure to give her lots of attention, and shush only at night and designated nap times (or if Mommy is just way too exhausted to deal with the baby waking up). Older daughter is the one somewhat disgruntled - she wants her own room.
And while I know some sterotypical "middle children", I also know families where the middle of three (now adult) children is the only one not messed up.

Posted by: inBoston | June 17, 2009 9:01 AM | Report abuse

The Jane Nelsen books on positive discipline have a good explanation about what happens with birth order and children finding their role in the family. If the role of "good" child is taken, or doesn't get them what they want (usually attention) kids will try to belong by taking a different role -- "difficult" child.
She also gives good explanations on what the child "gets" from the behavior (whether a misbehavior or inappropriate behavior). Once parents learn the mistaken goals of the child, it is much easier to sort out useful ways of addressing it.
It sounds like the new middle child is hitting two big changes at once, which makes it tempting to blame it all on the middle child "syndrome."
There's a part of me that is glad to see our son getting difficult now, before our second is born, so that I can see it as part of a phase.

Posted by: library2 | June 17, 2009 9:27 AM | Report abuse

Yep, I was the middle child and grew up as the unloved, black sheep, problem child. My older brother always got to ride shotgun while I sat in the back. He got the new bike, I got the hand-me-down. He got the key to the family car, but when it came my turn, my parents had "learned from that mistake". After graduating from HS, my older brother got sent away to college, I just got sent away.

As far as little sister goes, not only was she the recipient of the economic gain our family experienced as we grew older, she was the only girl, which made her "special". She got the neatest toys, the coolest parties and funny how the family car key policy was revised when she came of driving age. Comparing us later in life - For a wedding gift, she got a nice down payment for a house. SWEET! I got a tea kettle as a house warming present which btw, I used to fix my coffee this morning.

And it wasn't just all about money. when it came down to priorities/preferences/priveledges, I was always at the bottom of the list. My parents had a favorite son, and a favorite daughter, and I wasn't it. Looking back on the family dynamics and trying to explain it is simple. My older brother, though we were grouped as "the boys", was simply more mature than I, so when it came down to any kind of competition, whether it be sports, music, good behavior, the ability to pine for parental attention, or the child most worthy to sit next to mom at church, my brother always won, (or if my sister was involved, she was granted the necessary handicap points because of her "special" status.)

Either way, I always lost.

As a result, I developed a poor self image from thinking that I was a loser for so many years. I'll never get back the confidence and self-esteem that I lost during my childhood.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | June 17, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

I think a lot depends on the sex of the kids (middle child and 1 and 3) and length of time between each kid. I don't have a middle kid but am the youngest of 3, but 5 and 8 years younger than 2 brothers. The middle brother did not and does not have many of the middle child traits, he can be a little snarky though. I chalk that up to his personality.

In my limited knowledge these "middle child" problems happen more with 3 kids under the age of 5 or 6, all boys or all girls. I have a few families in mind where there are 3 kids, all one gender, and the middle one is a handful, attention hog or drama queen. I could be all wet, but that's my experience.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | June 17, 2009 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Experts/science disagrees, "but we can all cite anecdotal evidence that it does."

I can cite anecdotal evidence that astrology has a lasting impact on personality development too. I can cite anecdotal evidence that sea turtle migration patterns have a lasting impact on personality development.

But really what has a lasting impact is YOU, so why focus on birth order explanations for his behavior, (which you can't change), and instead focus on yourself and how you treat him, teach him, love him and everyone in your family?

"He's X because of Y" when Y (why) is unchangeable isn't as important as just "He's X". All Y does is make you feel better. It does nothing for him.

Posted by: 06902 | June 17, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

my personal experience also explains my bias in thinking that the birth-order syndrome is more nurture than nature.

i was the middle child and have the opposite traits of those listed.

and not to be snarky, but the author's child seems like a spoiled child who didn't like it when he wasn't in the spotlight 24/7. hopefully he'll turn out better now that he realizes that the world doesn't revolve around him.

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | June 17, 2009 11:21 AM | Report abuse

06902, I think you are talking about parents falling into a trap or for the hype. As in, my kid is the middle child and suddenly having problems, ergo Middle Child Syndrome.

I think this does happen.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | June 17, 2009 11:31 AM | Report abuse

In my family im the middle of three and also the only one that isnt/wasnt/hasnt totally messed up. Yeah alot of the traits apply to me; its very hard for me to make friends i dont like to share, I am also very easy going to the point were i put aside my own needs to make things easyer for others and its really hard for me to stick with some hobbys. but my mom was a single one who had to work two to three jobs at anytime to make sure ends met i didnt always get what i wanted but what i needed and it has made me better for it.

Posted by: stargirl1055412 | June 17, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

I am kind of an only child -- 11 years older than my half siblings. And I guess I am typical for an only or oldest child.

My 3 younger brothers, when younger, did seem to typify the birth order characteristics as well. Oldest was outgoing, had lots of friends, and very successful in sports. Middle was more of a nerd, introverted, book smart, and kind of angry at the injustice of it all. The youngest was charming, sweet and generally loved by all.

But now, the middle brother is actually the most extroverted and independent of the boys. He has a huge network of friends, a great job, a couple of hobbies he really enjoys, and seems to be on top of the world despite being the oft ignored middle child. His life is more his own. The other 2 boys are still closer to the parents, and to me, but they also seem in some ways attached in ways that are not that healthy for grown men. The apron strings are still there. For the middle brother, they were gone a long time ago, and he has grown up in ways his brothers have not.

Posted by: emily8 | June 17, 2009 12:52 PM | Report abuse

I always get upset by people who seem to think the last child is the lucky one. I was the third of three all right in a row and that meant my parents didn't have enough time for me - I can always make my mom feel guilty by pointing out that only the first page of my baby book is filled out while my older sibling's are almost done. My parents were also already used to going to all of my brother's hockey and baseball games and my sister's volleyball games, so when I stated swimming, there wasn't much time to add in swim meets as well. It also becomes a question of money and resources left. Parents are much more stretched to help a third kid go to college, pay for a wedding, buy a home etc. How often does the thid child get new clothes or toys when perfectly good ones are still around? I also had a really hard time being different. If I wanted to do something different than my older siblings, my parents were less likely to allow it or support it, because why wouldn't I just want to do the same things the older ones did? And since they were always older, that was always an excuse for letting them do something and not me - even if I was the same age now as when they started (I wans't allowed to drive until later, for example).

As for the middle child stereotypes, my sister, the middle child, probably got the most attention as she was pretty much a genious and perfect all around. It was much harder for me to try to live up to her example. No matter how good ranking third in your class might be, if the older sibling was first, its simply not as impressive.

Posted by: EAR0614 | June 17, 2009 12:53 PM | Report abuse

I would highly recommend that you check out the book "Siblings Without Rivalry" by Adele Faber. The book emphasizes the importance of responding to your children as individuals with unique needs, rather than placing them into "roles" (eg, oldest, middle, baby). The book offers some simple yet profound insights into sibling dynamics, and I think application of its techniques have had a very positive effect on our family dynamics.

Posted by: ajw1 | June 17, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

I was the elder (by 3 years) of 2 girls. Our parents were obsessed with being "fair" and treating us "equally." So with privileges (first "real" bicycle, staying up later, amount of allowance I got, etc.), I was always being held back until my sister was ready for it too ... but I was expected to be better behaved and more mature because, well, I was older.

Don't be those parents.

Posted by: PLozar | June 17, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

DH and I are both one of three. He's the oldest, I'm the youngest. He says NO emphatically, no discussion to three. Well, both the middles in our families are definitely screwed up in their own particular way. And he's seen a lot of it in other places as well.
I think that as a parent, one should be aware of birth order, but as mentioned above...not be a slave to it, i.e., think of it as predestined. If you just ignore it (as with anything)it's more likely to happen or whatever. So just being aware of it, without labeling (learning that from: raising your spirited child, altho it gets hard to read that, with a spirited child around...). And try your best...

Posted by: atlmom1234 | June 17, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the reading recommendation ajw. I'm expecting my second in November and one of my biggest worries is how to avoid the kind of alienated sibling relationships that seem to be the norm in my family.
Whacky, I'm really sorry to hear about your near worst-case scenario middle child experience. I hope you can get to a point where you feel it isn't holding you back anymore. Considering the quality of some of the things you write here, you've certainly got the brains to figure your way past it. My best wishes to you.

Posted by: pinkoleander | June 17, 2009 3:16 PM | Report abuse

FWIW, there can often be a huge gap from the way you perceive yourself to reality. Have you had your challenges? Yes. Probably more than many of us. Are you a loser? NO!!
You are a responsible, self-sustaining adult with a loving family, a job that you seem to enjoy, and a life that sounds pretty fulfilling. You are wicked with the keyboard and seem to be loved by all who get to know you. So hats off to you and others who have managed to get ahead and have reasonable lives despite the obstacles of childhood.

I once heard that in raising children, you should do the best you can and then save a little money for therapy, to cover the gaps, as it were. I hope I am a good parent to my kids, but I sometimes wonder what they will complain about as adults. Yikes.

Posted by: emily8 | June 17, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Just the two boys in our house, so no middle-child issues.

I was the oldest of four, but don't much fit the oldest-child stereotypes. Middle siblings were also two girls, but they are very different. 2nd has some middle-child traits, but also (maybe I was too laid back) has a lot of the oldest-child traits. 3rd sister seems to have some youngest-child traits, very charming, popular, gets along great with everyone... But she's also incredibly focused and driven.

Youngest, and only brother - well, he's a whole lot like the youngest and only girl described above. Special and perfect. But he lives on the opposite side of the country from the rest of the family, so who really knows how his adult life is going.

Seems to me there's a lot of other factors besides birth-order that determine adult personalities.

Posted by: SueMc | June 17, 2009 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Well, it really does sound like you have taken on more kids than you can comfortably handle. Your son screaming for someone to "please play with" him is a literal cry for help and attention. What made you think that at age three he would understand that the new baby's needs now ought to take priority over his own? I'm not saying that no one should have more than one child, mind you -- a sibling relationship can really add to a child's life, obviously, but have you noticed that some people manage this better than others?
If you want your kids to have good relationships with each other, you're going to need a more proactive approach. Do not attend to one at the expense of the others, get them involved. The three-year-old may bring you a diaper or pacifier from across the room and be lavishly praised for being helpful. He may "read" to the baby, put toys in the crib, and choose what outfit to dress the baby in. Let him overhear you telling a friend or family member what a great brother he is and how much help he is to you, because if he thinks he wasn't meant to hear, he will be sure it's true and live up to it. Tell him how much the baby loves and looks up to him, citing smiles, etc. as evidence.
Since you've taken his "baby" role, it needs to be replaced with something else, the privileges of being a big brother. Instead of shushing him during the baby's nap, ask him to make sure everyone remembers to be quiet. Raise your voice and let him "catch" you, then thank him for reminding you that the baby is sleeping. When he is ready for a new privilege, tell him that it's because he is the big brother and the baby isn't old enough yet to do it. With a little effort, he may grow to relish his change in status.

Posted by: rh36 | June 17, 2009 6:51 PM | Report abuse

I have two. Things started working out okay after both of them got old enough to learn this valuable piece of information, "IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU." We are a family, a team, we help each other, we try to be fair, but everyone doesn't always get the same. Some days are more special for others sometime, just like it or lump it and move on. How to teach this? Just point out the times YOU have to go without so THEY can have something. Kids don't notice unless we show them and teach them. I think we parents are guilty of making our kids the center of everything ALL the time and they never learn to be part of a team and that's where all the rivalry comes up.

When the kids want to share something, letting one split it and the other choose the piece usually works. If they can't work it out themselves, I'll take the toy, game whatever away. They've learned to flip coins, rock,paper,scissors, discuss, ANYTHING except call mom over, because they know what's going to go down when I come over.

Newsflash, your three year old is going to have a tantrum whether a new baby is in the house or not. He's three. Unless you live in some kind of vacuum, he'd be pitching a fit anyway the minute you have to speak on the phone for something important, competing/fighting with other kids in playgroup, life. He's growing! Lighten up.

Posted by: catweasel3 | June 18, 2009 9:15 AM | Report abuse

Way too much emphasis is put on birth order when it's parenting, not the number of siblings, that has the most lasting influence. Would your child be different if he were an only child? Possibly, but more likely he would be a three-year-old testing his parent.

The Japanese stereotype by blood type in much the same way we use birth order. I question the validity of either method. You can read about blood type and birth order stereotyping at Psychology Today magazine:
Susan Newman, Ph.D., author of Parenting an Only Child

Posted by: snewmanphd | June 18, 2009 9:27 AM | Report abuse

The author's son sounds to me like many children when a new baby is added to the household. When my twins were born, my oldest had a full-on nervous breakdown. Took about 6 months before she was able to adjust. One year later, she loves her brother and sister and plays with them all the time, but it took a loooong time to get here.

Posted by: floof | June 18, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

I fear you have read all of the worst stereotypes and may internalize them. Don't. I speak as a fairly successful, 45 year old, middle child. Now, did I feel life was unfair at time when growing up? Absolutely. I also had opportunities that neither of my brothers did.

It sounds like you've identified a possible problem. Particularly when it comes to the "attention hogging" older sister. Remember, he's not just a little brother now. He's a big brother too. That's a pretty cool thing.

Good luck and godspeed.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | June 18, 2009 3:52 PM | Report abuse

The child is still reacting to having a new sibling. That is traumatic for many if not most kids, and takes some time to adjust. I also have heard that a spacing of 3 years is about the worst in terms of how the siblings will get along. Closer together, they are almost the same age, farther apart and the older one can be more mature about it and doesn't mind the little one so much... may even like having a little sibling to care for and play with. 3 years - not so good. So of course, my two kids are 3 years apart! They are now grown but there was a lot of bickering and jockeying. And the older one (my daughter) regressed quite a bit when her brother was born. I think it is a temporary adjustment mostly... I think that the birth order thing is way overrated.

Posted by: catherine3 | June 22, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

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