American Middle Children Are Going Extinct—Here’s How That’s Affecting the World
They’re the empathetic ones, the natural-born mediators. What might their dwindling numbers mean for the rest of us?
I don’t need to ask you what you did on August 12. You no doubt attended your local Middle Child Day parade or took in a lecture on Famous Middle Children Throughout History, then came home and cracked open a bottle of Middle Sister wine to celebrate all these things that middle children understand. (It’s a real product, created “for middle sisters everywhere.”)
Or maybe you spent National Middle Child Day contemplating the extinction of the middle child. Because, like the mountain gorilla and the hawksbill turtle, the American middle child is now an endangered species. Blame millennials, who are waiting longer to get married and have children. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, in 1976, 65 percent of mothers between ages 40 and 44 had three or more children. Today, nearly two-thirds of women with children have only one or two. Middle children, the most populous birth-order demographic throughout most of history, will soon be the tiniest.
As a middle child, I am dismayed at the potential disappearance of my ilk. I’m the middle of three—two boys, one girl—so I’m what’s sometimes referred to as a “classic middle,” as opposed to, say, the five middle kids between the oldest and youngest in a family of seven.
Being a middle child is not something you aspire to; it’s something that happens to you. As one middle child said to me, “There is a thing called middle-child syndrome. There’s no official oldest-child syndrome or youngest-child syndrome. We’re the only ones with a real syndrome.” I certainly was always aware that the middle was not a position to be envied, even as I came to see typical middle-child traits in myself. Middle children are natural mediators; I avoid conflict and habitually act as the family peacemaker. Middle children tend to be private but also starved for affection; I keep to myself but am not exactly attention-averse. Here are more definitive traits of being a middle child.
Mostly, what I learned as a middle child is that being the middle means being defined by what you are not. You’re shaped primarily by what you missed out on and what you don’t possess. According to studies, middles traditionally receive less financial and emotional support from their parents. They also typically have less intimate relationships with their mothers and fathers compared with other siblings, so they tend to have more friends, presumably in compensation.
The list of famous middle children includes figures as diverse as Warren Buffett and Jennifer Lopez, but for the most part, middles are reliably cast in the culture as oddballs, outcasts, and misfits. On TV family sitcoms, the middle child is the misunderstood smart aleck, whether it’s Lisa Simpson (The Simpsons) or Alex Dunphy (Modern Family). Then there are Peter and Jan Brady of The Brady Bunch, the middles in their respective gender troikas.
Poor Jan, sandwiched between perfect Marcia and adorable Cindy, became pop culture’s most enduring embodiment of the middle child, a character so epically persecuted by her birth-order status that her cri de middledom—“Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”—could be the Latin motto emblazoned above the family crest of Middle Children.
Julien Pacaud for Reader's Digest
In a study conducted by the City College of New York in which participants were asked to choose words they associate with first, last, and middle kids, positive attributes such as caring and ambitious were cited in reference to all three birth orders. Only middles, however, were described with such negative terms as overlooked and confused. More significantly, middles were the only birth order to which no one applied the term spoiled. Middles may be many things, but they are not overindulged.
The true evidence, though, comes from middles themselves. Candace, the middle of seven, told me, “Nobody took baby pictures of me—which I didn’t realize until I was in my 40s and asked for them. That was a strange, awful discovery.” As Bruce Hopman, the founder of the International Middle Child Union and a classic middle child, pointed out to me, Abel—Adam and Eve’s middle son and the brother to Cain and Seth—was both history’s first middle child and history’s first murder victim.
It’s possible, of course, that the entire theory of birth-order attribution is overblown. Many psychologists discount it altogether. While oldest kids may grow up to be CEOs (they disproportionately do) and youngest kids may grow up to be comedians (they disproportionately do), people tend to recognize and agree with personality traits that seem to be tailored specifically for them, even when they’re general enough to apply to a large group. (If you’re told that, say, redheads are “nice, but occasionally stubborn” you’ll agree if you’re a redhead, even though that could really describe anyone.)
The best counterargument in favor of birth order’s importance is that it helps explain—along with genetics—why siblings can be so different from one another. After all, siblings are generally exposed to the same developmental conditions, whether parental, geographic, or economic. The only obvious variances in siblings are gender and birth order.
Donald Trump is a middle child. He’s the fourth of five children, and the second-born son. And while he shares the middle child’s proclivity for negotiation, here’s the catch: Trump, a CEO and now president— roles we might expect to see filled by an eldest child—is what’s referred to by psychologists as “functionally firstborn,” meaning the particular circumstances of his family may have shaped him like a firstborn son. In his case, Trump’s older brother died prematurely from alcoholism. In such situations, some psychologists posit, the second-born son assumes the mantle of the first, stepping up to seek the parental approval he was initially denied.
Birth-order theory suggests that, because they aren’t burdened by excessive expectation (like the firstborn) nor excessive attention (like the last-born), middle-borns are uniquely poised to succeed. They are skilled diplomats by virtue of being stuck between two siblings. They’re portrayed as loyal romantic partners and friends because they are both hungry for intimate bonds and willing to compromise to maintain relationships. And they’re believed to be natural innovators, since they’re less likely to feel the weight of parental expectation. (Bill Gates is the middle child of a prominent lawyer. His older sister, Kristianne, grew up to become an accountant.)
“What few people realize is that middle children are actually more likely to effect change in the world successfully than any other birth order,” says psychologist Catherine Salmon, a leading expert on middle children. “As is so often the case with middles, they’re perennially underestimated.”
That’s why, even though I’m a middle myself, my mourning for the disappearance of middles isn’t selfish. I’m thinking instead of the world left behind—a world of fewer diplomats. A world without as many hardy types whose upbringing gives them a knack for empathy. Jennifer Garner, when asked about raising kids in Hollywood, once referred to her own essential middle-childness. “I am the model middle child,” she explained. “I am patient, and I like to take care of everyone. Being called nice is a compliment. It’s not a boring way to describe me.” Patient. Caring. Nice. Even boring. Doesn’t it feel like those are qualities we need more of right now?
These qualities, of course, won’t disappear entirely. But as families continue to shrink and the number of middle children dwindles, there is real reason to fear. Because the irony is that the strengths associated with middle children come not from parental nurturing but from parental inattention. That means these virtues are especially difficult to cultivate in other kids. The secret power of middles, says Salmon, “points away from the notion that successful parenting is all about time and attention.” In advocating for middles, Salmon is also promoting the idea that today’s culture of overparenting is actually hindering the development of classic middle-child merits in all children, because middles are forged in benign neglect.
It’s hard to imagine a world without so many of the middle children we know. There’s Nelson Mandela and Susan B. Anthony and David Letterman and Charles Darwin and Charlotte and Emily Brontë and Martin Luther King Jr. You could no doubt make lists of firstborns and last-borns and only children whom it would be just as hard to imagine the world without. But we’ve never had a problem celebrating the Marcias and the Cindys. Maybe it’s time for Jan to have her day.