Being a middle child is like being one of those presidents between Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt. Yeah, you made it, but does anyone really care? Anyone saddled with this fate had better get used to being overlooked and shortchanged.
Other children can expect better. The firstborn enjoys a period of exclusive parental attention that confers a lifelong assumption of being wonderful. The baby is spoiled by dint of the cuteness that goes with being the youngest. Parents who shower the eldest with attention, because they’re new at this and afraid of what could go wrong, often adopt a lax approach to the last one out of exhaustion or complacency.
But the kid in between gets none of these benefits. Parents tend to be strict with the middle child, as they were with the first — not indulgent, as they are with the last.
Plus this kid is stuck between an elder sibling and a younger one. As one woman we know recalls, “I used to fear being alone with my older sister, who delighted in pinning me on the floor and drooling on my face. Meanwhile, my younger sister rarely got grounded, met curfew or paid for gas or clothes or makeup.”
Another, the fourth of eight, says of the eldest, “There were a lot more pictures of him than me, and a lot more home movies of him than me.” Her younger siblings, meanwhile, got luxuries the parents couldn’t afford in earlier years. One middle child we know well, when asked about his experience, replied: “I have no comment.”
The obvious unfairness that they endure shapes middle children. They often turn out to be independent because Mom and Dad aren’t going to do everything for them, hardworking because how else can they expect to get their due and humble because they learn from an early age they’re not that important. They also tend to be rebellious and hungry for attention, and who can blame them?
As if these poor souls haven’t had enough pain, now comes the news that middle children are becoming extinct in America. Back in the 1970s, reports Adam Sternbergh in New York Magazine, “four kids (or more) was the most common family unit.” But today, the typical family with children has just two. And guess who loses out this game of musical chairs? It’s not the oldest or the youngest.
Even if you’re not a middle child, though, this looming absence should concern you. “What few people realize is that middle children are actually more likely to successfully effect change in the world than any other birth order,” psychologist Catherine Salmon told Sternbergh.
You need evidence? Well, the roster includes Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Bill Gates, Chief Justice John Roberts, Michael Jordan and Madonna. Also Donald Trump. Say what you will, you can’t say they didn’t effect change in the world.
So if middle children largely disappear, everyone else will lose the distinctive qualities they have to offer. And here’s one last bit of injustice: If the experience of middle children is any guide, no one will notice.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE